The pandemic laid bare inefficiencies and vulnerabilities across laboratory operations where global supply chain issues, alongside high testing volumes, and the demand for faster turn-around-times disrupted the pace of innovation and productivity.1
Today, rising competition for talent and specialist skills continues to pose a significant challenge to many organisations seeking to expand, whether through traditional recruitment or through working with contract research organisations (CRO). Recent industry surveys reveal that 80% of pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities are experiencing a skills mismatch, 2 and 50% of biopharmaceutical executives find recruiting technically experienced staff challenging.3
New models to support not only operational agility but also business continuity are required for laboratories across the biopharmaceutical industry to future-proof operations.
The Evolution of Collaboration in Laboratory Operations
Collaboration through R&D outsourcing emerged in the 1980s to support activities such as internal discovery programs, chemical synthesis, and toxicology testing before its scope widened in the next decade as collaboration flourished. Across 1990, increases in minority, holdings and R&D partnerships drove greater demand for outsourcing support from CROs, expanding their range of capabilities from activities like screening and combinatorial chemistry to gene expression and bioinformatics.4
While the use of CROs is expected to continue to grow over the next decade, it’s questionable as to whether this trend is out of the efficacy the collaboration offers, or the familiarity the biopharmaceutical, and wider clinical industries have with the method. Despite advantages including improved flexibility, variable costs, and easier exits from unsuccessful programmes, disadvantages in traditional outsourcing models can be problematic.5
Challenges associated with CROs include:
- Measuring causal association and new hypotheses in knowledge-intensive clinical projects
- Potential of regulatory compliance failures
- Potential of know-how leakages
- Inhibited continuous improvement
- Loss of control and oversight at an external facility
Empirical research on the ROI behind using outsourced services is mixed, however, it’s notable that some studies indicating improved R&D performance with outsourced support, utilise data from 2001 and previous.6 Meanwhile, more recent empirical research has shown that biotech firms have a lower innovative performance when using outsourced services, compared to organisations with established internal teams.7
Alternatives to outsourcing continue to emerge as demand for more holistic and unified options for workforces grows across the wider pharmaceutical industry. Out of this, scientific services are growing in popularity, where teams of scientific workers work alongside existing staff at the client’s site, all while being developed and managed externally by the scientific services provider. These onsite scientific service models enable organisations to free up and optimise FTE expenditure by embedding highly skilled permanent staff across the permanent workforce. Unlike CROs where external facility complications can add to timelines, an on-site model means sharing onsite project deadline risk, while still benefiting from external scientific expertise onsite to scale according to demand.
Addressing Temporary Labour Turnover
The laboratory workforce is fundamental to the operation, and success of any project, making their development and retention critical to business continuity.
In biopharmaceutical organisational that utilise additional support from CROs, minimising temporary labour turnover can be a challenge. What’s more, the pre-existing turnover from temporary labour sources, such as CROs, can drive wider turnover trends. Comprehensive data analysis on pharmaceutical projects between 1990 and 2017 found that collaborative relationships drove greater attrition rates, compared to instances where the organisation integrated the two teams.8 Carol Jennings, Synergy Operations Director explains, “Business continuity is fundamental to laboratory research, and attrition is a major challenge in the sector. If you’re spending 2 years training an individual for them to leave, you lose a major asset. What’s more, you hinder the momentum of the research. However, if you reflect on your team, and their challenges, and tailor actionable solutions, you can overcome attrition and improve continuity. In science, where things are ever-evolving, it’s about having a flexible and agile approach to staff retention in the laboratory.”