Best Practices for Core Labs

by Nick Beckloff on February 24, 2016 in Core Labs

Imagine running a business in which you could only break even — not make or lose money. Breaking even isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that your business is in a very competitive field where the technology changes every 18 months. Keeping pace with technological change requires effort, and on top of it all, you have to manage all of the other tasks associated with running a business, such as paying rent, paying salaries, and dealing with depreciation of expensive equipment. If you can imagine this scenario, then you likely have some experience working in an academic core facility.

There are an estimated 700 core labs in the U.S. alone, and the number of these facilities that offer genomics services is growing steadily. These labs typically reside in the academic organization they serve, and provide fee-for-service enterprises (recharge rates) for modern research projects. They are also an institutional bastion for knowledge when it comes to equipment and techniques related to their specialties because the researchers in the lab are often experts in their fields.

Initially, core facilities require substantial institutional support or grants to cover their expenses, with only a small portion of their revenue coming from recharge rates. For example, a survey of 124 facilities performed showed that only 49% of their average total income ($244,000) was from recharge rates, up from 43% of their total ($158,000) from five years earlier.1,2 Despite the throughput of today’s technology, many core facilities have trouble breaking even due to increased competition, lower funding levels and inadequate management.

Indeed, life in a core facility can be difficult and exhausting, as the need to provide the latest and greatest services, at competitive rates, with a quick turnaround time is ongoing. Many organizations struggle to maintain the technological status quo, as advances are happening more quickly than ever.

So what’s a core to do?

On the heels of the recent Association for Biomedical Resource Facilities (ABRF) meeting in Florida earlier this week, I’d like to offer four, time-tested and straightforward suggestions. These originate from my experience in a core lab and many of the core labs we work with to implement BaseSpace Clarity LIMS.

Differentiate. Most scientists who send samples off to a core lab for processing have their choice in which lab to send them to, so it makes sense for your lab to stand out. What is it that your lab does better than any other lab? Does it offer services that are faster than other labs? When considering your lab’s differentiator, it’s wise to focus on one or two core competencies. If given the typical project options of fast, cheap, and good, you can in most circumstances only pick two. What two can your lab provide?

In the exercise of determining what core competency to focus on, many labs use the opportunity to revisit their prices, their quality standards, and the turnaround time they offer. Can changes be made to become more competitive? For instance, the price of instruments and consumables has dropped substantially–can you pass this cost savings on to your customers? Likewise, find out what your customers views as being a good, quality service. Is it lack of error and the latest technologies? Whatever it is, it makes sense to define these parameters from the customer’s perspective.

Integrate. Because the technology is always changing, core labs are wise to invest in technology and tools that can easily integrate with the existing systems in their labs. For example, invest in a LIMS that includes integrations with your existing instruments or enables you to easily modify lab workflows.  Less time spent trying to get systems working together is more time to get the work done.

Automate. Many core labs have discovered the power of automation. Automation has several benefits, including fewer errors, more standardization, and the ability for staff to engage in less mundane work. The labs we work with have automated by investing in informatics tools, such as a freezer management system, laboratory information management system (LIMS), and liquid handling robots.

Measure. The successful cores we work with seem to be in a constant state of evaluation — through their customers’ eyes or via regular reporting tools. Determine key performance metrics for your lab and use reporting tools to measure them. Turnaround time, instrument performance, and use of consumables are all a good place to start. Your lab may want to measure other metrics as well. The beauty of ongoing reporting is that it can not only help you measure trends over time but help you identify those issues for which you are completely unaware.

If you would like to talk about how to gain greater efficiency in your core lab, please contact us.

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  1. K R Williams, R L NieceD AthertonA V FowlerR Kutny andA J Smith (1988). The size, operation, and technical capabilities of protein and nucleic acid core facilities. The FASEB Journal.  Vol. 2 no. 15 3124-3130.
  2. R L NieceC M BeachR F CookG M Hathaway and K R Williams (1991). State-of-the-art biomolecular core facilities: a comprehensive survey. The FASEB Journal.  Vol. 5no. 13 2756-2760.