The past year was unquestionably challenging for many of us. As I reflect on 2020, however, it is not only the challenges that will stick with me, but also the surprising amount that was achieved. The adaptability demonstrated by organizations and individuals across the spectrum of scientific discovery, and right here at CAS, has been inspiring to me. It quickly became clear as we collaborated with researchers globally throughout the year that taking the innovator out of the lab does not dampen their thirst for learning, solving, discovering and making progress, as long as they have access to quality information. In fact, not only has innovation continued, but in many cases the forced recalibration has resulted in learnings and process improvements that will pay dividends long after the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing this unexpected decentralization of work environments has underscored is the critical importance of data access, quality and integration. From the lab to the boardroom and everywhere in between, information access and utilization may be the most under-recognized enablers (or blockers) of strategic priorities related to growth, efficiency and sustainability that are common to most innovation-focused organizations.
As we all begin charting the course on our 2021 priorities, in the spirit of carrying COVID-inspired learnings forward, I want to share some stories of compelling new ways organizations around the globe that we work with are achieving aspirational outcomes by more effectively using information. I hope that these examples spark new ideas for you on ways to maximize the value of internal and external information assets to support the success of your team’s most critical objectives this year.
Driving growth through innovation
Innovation is a fundamental component of most organizations’ 2021 growth plans. You may be focused on charting a path into unexplored territory to expand your portfolio or seeking to create new value by digging deeper in known areas. In either case, the speed and success of any innovation journey is highly dependent on how effectively you are able to build upon past learnings to inform your strategy and jump start your discovery process.
When focusing on incremental innovation, the benefit of having a complete picture of previous research and access to existing data is obvious. The opportunity, however, is in being able to find novel connections among these disparate data points to inform new solutions. For example, a research team in the electronics industry was able to cut the development time for a new device version by half and gain first mover advantage by leveraging a custom dataset curated from the comprehensive CAS content collection. Scientists at CAS identified specific property data for materials from across many sources and established connections to relevant devices. The resulting dataset enabled more effective use of machine learning to accurately predict relationships between material and device properties.
Those chasing breakthrough innovation strategies in previously unexplored areas still have much to gain from previous research efforts. Take for example the work of MoA Technologies, a startup spun-out from Oxford University's Plant Sciences Department that focuses on overcoming the global agriculture challenge posed by herbicide-resistant weeds with new compounds showing activity based on novel modes of action. They recently reported that integrating high-quality substance data from CAS REGISTRY® into their existing candidate identification process greatly enhanced their ability to accurately prioritize compounds most likely to have herbicidal activity from an untapped chemical space. As a result, their screening is much more focused and cost effective, allowing them to deliver new solutions to market faster. Similar impacts have also been achieved in the pharma space where customized CAS molecular descriptors enhanced the accuracy of biological activity predictions by more than 30%.
In each of these cases, organizations were able to leverage relatively modest data investments to achieve aspirational innovation targets, and in the process, demonstrate the catalyzing potential of better information to accelerate innovation across disciplines.
Increasing efficiency to maximize every investment
Enhancing efficiency is another opportunity area that will be a focus for many organizations in the coming year. Improving access to high-quality information can have a big impact on workflow efficiency when multiplied across an entire workforce. This was clearly demonstrated in a comparative study that showed the new technology and workflow efficiency enhancements introduced in SciFindern reduce the time to complete key research tasks by ~50%.
In some cases, it is necessary to address changing conditions by developing a totally new approach to long-standing processes. Our collaboration with the Brazilian Patent Office to overcome what was widely seen as an insurmountable patent examination backlog shows the dramatic progress that can be achieved in a relatively short time. Over the past 18 months, CAS and Brazilian Patent Office staff have collaborated to expedite their patent examination workflow by pairing advanced artificial intelligence technology with the unique expertise of CAS scientists and technologists. This solution will allow them to rapidly eliminate the backlog for relevant subject areas, and by drastically reducing the examiners’ time investment required to examine each new patent application, they will be better prepared to keep up with the rising volume of applications as key industries in Brazil continue to innovate and grow.
While novel approaches are important, addressing data integrity and workflow integration gaps within existing processes is one of the largest opportunities we see to increase R&D workflow efficiency across segments. Considering that laboratory automation investments now represent a significant portion of R&D budgets and are expected to nearly double in a span of 8 years, maximizing ROI on these investments is critical. Unfortunately, gaps in foundational data management infrastructure are handicapping these technologies, greatly reducing the realized return. If not addressed, the strategic impact of these disconnects will only multiply as the footprint of digital R&D tools continues to grow and increased reliance on outsourcing and partnership strategies makes seamless data exchange with external parties critical to success.
To give you a sense for the potential impact of addressing these gaps, consider a large specialty chemical company that was struggling with data integrity challenges and inefficiencies caused by manual data entry across their disconnected digital R&D workflow tools. They achieved projected savings of over $800,000 annually by working with the CAS Custom Services team to develop a standardized data architecture, clean up the existing archives and introduce a process for ongoing verification of newly added chemical substance data against CAS REGISTRY via an API.
Enhancing collaboration and sustainability locally and globally
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we are all inextricably connected to one another. With this in mind, I anticipate that the focus on both sustainability and collaboration within the growing global R&D community will accelerate in the years to come.
The unprecedented speed that therapeutics, vaccines and testing were developed by the global research community to combat COVID-19 clearly demonstrates the value of collaboration to accelerate discovery. Successful collaboration at scale, however, requires enabling platforms and efficient data exchange. The recently launched Pistoia Alliance Chemical Safety Library, built and hosted by CAS, is an example of a platform that enables data sharing with a very important purpose. This free, crowd-sourced tool enables scientists across the globe to search and share information on hazardous reaction incidents to improve laboratory safety by learning from others’ experiences. This is just one of many opportunity areas where more effective collaboration provides clear benefits across the research community.
Sustainability is another arena where often investments can deliver organizational benefits while also positively impacting the broader ecosystem. Consider the success that ICL, a global manufacturer of mineral products, including agriculture chemicals, fire retardants and biocides, has achieved by leveraging data mining on CAS content to find commercial applications for waste and byproducts of their manufacturing process. This approach uncovered opportunities to turn a cost-driver into a value-generator, while also decreasing their environmental impact. Once scaled, they project this strategy will eliminate hundreds of thousands of tons of waste each year, saving them millions of dollars over the next five years.
As I close the door on 2020 (locking it, just for good measure), I look optimistically toward the fresh promise of a new year. Like many, I hope that at some point in 2021 things start to feel more normal again, and as we all embrace and optimize this “new normal”, it is informed and inspired by what we have learned throughout this journey.
As you consider new opportunities for your organization in this new normal, know that CAS is ready to help you make that vision a reality with unparalleled content, specialized technology and unmatched scientific information expertise. From all of us at CAS, we wish you a healthy, prosperous and happier 2021!