Are smartphone apps used in the life sciences, either by scientists in the laboratory or by sales people in the field?
If you have a smartphone, it's likely that you have a few (or a lot) of apps on it. And some of those you use every day. Some are fun. Some are helpful. A few manage to be both, like the ones that keep your kids busy in the car on a long trip.
But what about in the laboratory? Not your kids, the scientists. Do they use them? How often and for what purpose?
In the life sciences, most apps are intended to help the user (usually a scientist) in some way. They perform calculations, determine reaction conditions, or be a resource providing access to a database.
App providers, of course, are trying to convert users into customers. The intended goals range from the branding benefit of frequently placing a name in front of potential customers to helping users select an appropriate product for a process or experiment. Some companies use apps as sales tools during interactions with customers.
A survey of iTunes and Google Play showed that apps are more commonly available from life science product companies than from service providers.
I also asked a handful of people on both the product and service side of the life sciences to share their thoughts and experiences about app development and usage for either marketing or sales. Most of the apps I discussed are free, which wasn't surprising. The purpose for most apps is to increase engagement. Because each app targets such a narrow niche, the revenue potential doesn't seem large, so it doesn't really make sense to charge for access. Even selling a few thousand installations at $5 each isn't going to help anyone's bottom line very much.
The target audience is primarily lab scientists, although I also found examples for facility managers and for sales reps.
Help scientists plan experiments: NEB Tools (New England Biolabs) is available free on mobile (iphone or Android) to help scientists plan experiments, largely around cloning. There are multiple tools within this single app.
One tool, Double Digest, helps biologists optimize digestion efficiency when cutting DNA with two restriction enzymes whose ideal buffers are different.
A TM calculator optimizes PCR reactions based on the primer, polymerase, and the protocol.
For larger screens, NEB Cloner, contains a digest finder and helps researchers through the workflow of a cloning experiment, and includes videos. This tool requires visualizing data that would be too large to be practical even on an iPhone 6. NEB Tools has over 10,000 installations on Google Play. This isn't surprising for an app that could be useful to any biologist who has to digest or amplify DNA.
Search bioanalytical methods database: Bioanalytical services is a smaller niche than DNA manipulation. Researchers are typically looking for large molecule biomarkers. Among life science services, bioanalytical is more transactional than tox, for example. Users are looking to find the right assay for their target molecule.
inVentiv Health's app, Assay List, searches 1000+ validated bioanalytical assays (mass spectrometry) by compound and sorts by methodology, matrix, calibration range, and molecule.
Assay List has been downloaded between 50 and 100 times on Google Play.
Connect laboratories to veterinary practice: In the companion animals market, IDEX labs offers Vet Connect Plus. This internally developed app lets veterinarians and practice staff access lab results on a smartphone or tablet making it easy to show the customer without needing paper printouts. A big benefit to the provider is that by offering trend analyses over time, it incents the vet to stay with their service. The app is free.
Lead generation at trade shows: GE Healthcare - Lifesciences is leading the charge on paper-free sales reps. And when they meet customers at trade shows, they want to make sure that the information they provide goes home with them.
At events, booth staff talk to attendees with an iPad in hand to refer to data or whatever information they need. All the products on the internal catalog, virtual demos, application notes, and more are available. The iPad can be linked to display on a large screen so many attendees can view at once.
When the conversation is over, the booth staff emails the relevant information immediately, avoiding the hassle and expense of handing out paper that goes into the trash at the hotel or airport. The app integrates to a CRM tool and creates a lead. Altogether, this app solves one major challenge of shows: attribution and tracking.
While some customers might appreciate a paper brochure, most are very tech savvy. That's the direction the world is going.
Selecting the right product: Sales reps from Sartorius Chromatography cover 6 lines comprising 10,000 products.
The Sartobind app gives customers access to product catalogs, flow rate calculators, manuals, and a product selection guide based on the isoelectric point of the target molecule. The options are split by application (Capture or Polishing). Updating catalogs and manuals in the cloud saves space on your device.
The Android version has been installed 100 to 500 times from Google Play. It's also available for iPhone and desktops.
Matching customers and vendors: Could an app streamline your RFP process? Apparently, yes. Biofficient.com created cloud-based software that saves pharma companies the hassle of filling out multiple RFPs. It's been described as match.com for pharma and service providers. The sponsor fills out its needs on a form. The app searches for companies that meet those needs. A filter lets you select to which vendors the RFP is sent.
Who pays? Large pharma companies buy a license to use the app. Small companies can use the tool and vendors pay a percentage back to the intermediary once a CRO is chosen.
Remote systems monitoring: Panasonic's LabAlert is really more than an app. It's a complete system that sends notifications to a smartphone (or many) so you can monitor multiple systems (eg, freezers, CO2 chambers) from multiple locations at once. Understandably, this app isn't free, as it really is a service.
Probes assess system health and wirelessly communicate with a router and the cloud. Considering that millions of biological samples, many irreplaceable, are stored around the world, the availability of such real-time information is crucial. In addition, CDC guidelines are making paper charts obsolete.
"From life science perspective, there is a lot of data and instrumentation to work with. It's just a question of when and how," says Deepak Mistri of Panasonic Healthcare. "The internet of things is ready to explode. Labs are becoming like a smart home — app enabled."
Protocol tracking for the customer. Product development data for the provider. Sometimes a researcher might want to keep track of steps in a protocol or record changes, but sharing successful protocol improvements on paper copies or even email is so twentieth century.
ZappyLab (now Protocols.io) is creating mobile apps that let you track and share your protocols easily. ZappyLab Bench Tools includes Protocols, PubChase, a lab counter, timer, and molarity calculator.
"OK. Scientists can share their protocols through an app", you say. "What's the big deal?"
The unique opportunity here, as with any social tool, is to collect data on what the app user is doing, (and use it only for good, of course). An app like this can inform vendors how their products are being used, learn about possible improvements, and see trends in the type of experiments being done to help them develop the next generation of tools.
This goes beyond the use of apps for marketing and sales. Now we're talking about the possibility of using apps for product development.
For researchers in the lab, using a smartphone or tablet while wearing gloves can be problematic, but not impossible. What improvements could the future bring?
Imagine a researcher being guided through the experiment she planned by a virtual lab assistant (whose image she chose), displayed on a monitor above her bench or on a heads-up display projected on a fume hood. It's not out of the question.
What's your prediction for the next generation of life science killer apps?
Chris Conner is the Director of Marketing for SAMPS. He has led global marketing communications programs for major life science companies. Chris helps companies simplify content marketing to generate and close more qualified leads with fewer resources and less effort. He is also the host of Life Science Marketing Radio, a podcast where marketing leaders inside and outside the sciences share their knowledge to help you increase your marketing ROI.