Guest Column | September 8, 2020

Maintaining Lab Operations Amid Coronavirus Restrictions


By Matthew Pillar, Editor, BioProcess Online

Lab Operations Amid Coronavirus Restrictions

Obsidian Therapeutics CEO Dr. Paul Wotton developed a novel solution to the workforce and resource disruption caused by COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. He’s made it available to other biotechs, cost-free.

The Problem: When COVID-19 struck the United States hard and fast early this spring, few companies were prepared for the lock downs, the shutdowns, and the remote work requirements that went into effect at every level of federal, state, and local government. The biopharma industry, with its criticality of on-site lab work, was put at particularly acute risk. While deemed an essential business, biopharma execs faced tough choices in the balance between maintaining development or production and assuring the safety of dozens, hundred, or thousands of employees operating in close physical proximity. Choosing to throttle down on operations created granular logistical challenges in scheduling employees, lab spaces, and equipment in a manner that facilitated progress while adhering to pandemic-induced social distancing and safety protocols. With most clinical trials in the perilous state of being placed on hold to protect patient populations, biopharmas would come to a fast halt if forced to stall development and manufacturing work as well. While the C-suite found workarounds to enable work-from-home, scientists in the lab and staffers in production facilities had no such luxury.

Obsidian Therapeutics CEO Dr. Paul Wotton
Obsidian Therapeutics CEO Dr. Paul Wotton
The Expertise: Dr. Paul Wotton, CEO of biopharma Obsidian Therapeutics, is far from a software developer. Rather, he’s a pharmaceutical sciences Ph.D. and a five-time pharma company CEO who bought chops from leadership positions at places like Abbott Labs and Merck to the emerging life sciences companies he’s helmed. But he’s an entrepreneur and a problem solver, and when COVID-19 presented big risks to progress at Obsidian Therapeutics, where he’s served as CEO since April 2019, he was fast to respond with a homegrown solution that was unlikely, and perhaps unprecedented, for an emerging biopharma company. Dr. Wotton told us about it on a recent episode of The Business Of Biotech: Summer Executive Sessions. Here are some highlights of his story.

  • Prepare Early. By mid-February, Dr. Wotton and his team at Obsidian were listening intently to epidemiologist projections on how the virus was anticipated to spread. He says his Chief Research and Development Officer, an M.D. named Catherine Stehman-Breen, was instrumental in—quite correctly—convincing him that the pandemic would be serious and disruptive. “That’s when we started looking at what we were going to do in the event we had to slow things down, how we would go about prioritizing and triaging our work,” says Dr. Wotton.
  • Make Course Corrections. At the time, Obsidian was depending largely on a combination of its newly-implemented Microsoft Teams application, Outlook, and a corporate intranet to facilitate office communications and schedule laboratory time. That worked fine for the white collars in the C-suite, but when restrictions and self-imposed safety measures forced the company to spread lab work over a longer day and stagger scientist’s access to it, problems revealed themselves. “Nick Betts, our Senior Director and Head of IT and Facilities, approached me and said ‘Paul, this isn’t going to work,’ recalls Dr. Wotton. That’s when Betts and Wotton began laying the groundwork for a homegrown, Web-based workforce and resource management program dubbed SWFT (Safe Workplace Function Tool).
  • Rally A Community. Simultaneously, the same scheduling and safety concerns that Obsidian was struggling with became the focus of a CEO working group that Dr. Wotton belonged to. The consensus was that most were facing common challenges, and off-the-shelf workforce management and scheduling solutions weren’t cutting the mustard.  Betts and Dr. Wotton queried that group regularly, building their suggestions into the development of the SWFT application. Their goal was to create a tool that wouldn’t just work for Obsidian, but that would solve the unique workforce and resource allocation challenges COVID-19 laid down for the greater life sciences community. Since its release in April, the application has been available open-source and free of charge to any biotech. Well more than 30 organizations have implemented it.
  • Focus On The Functionality.  The Web-based SWFT platform allows its users to:
    • Manage project workflows
    • Schedule specific laboratory equipment for specific increments of time in accordance with those workflows
    • Schedule employee time in a manner consistent with workplace and social distancing restrictions
    • Manage the deep clean of equipment between users
    • Track and trace equipment and facilities usage down to the user
    • Monitor employee temperature checks prior to beginning shifts

As development continues, new functionality is continually added. The business results, says Dr. Wotton, are clear and measurable. “We’re learning things about our workflows and efficiency that we’ll maintain as standard practice whether we’re in the throes of a crisis or not,” he says. “This exercise and the ensuing platform have sharpened our ability to focus on what’s really important and to work toward what’s most important in an efficient manner.”

The Bigger Picture: Whether it remains a pandemic or gets downgraded to an epidemic, and whether it continues as a global crisis or rears its head in localized “hotspots,” here’s no definitive end in sight to the workplace and social disruptions caused by the virus. Addressing resource usage and workforce scheduling to accommodate the safety of your staff—and planning for uninterrupted operations should a health emergency directly impact the communities in which you operate—are not short-term or Band Aid propositions. Leveraging resources like SWFT (now in its second iterations as SWFT 2.0) and having a plan at the ready are imperatives to maintaining your timelines and momentum, come what may.

Learn more about Obsidian Therapeutics, its SWFT platform, and Dr. Wotton’s approach to change management on episode 9 of the Business Of Biotech: Summer Executive Sessions podcast.