What Does the Research Lab of the Future Look Like?

PLAY OF THE LAND

Thomas Edison died almost 85 years ago, but the famed American inventor still exerts a powerful influence over how scientific research spaces are planned and constructed. 

Edison’s Menlo Park, N.J., research lab served as a model for many of the university research labs built in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, says Gregory Weddle, vice president, specialty facility solutions at CBRE, Global Workplace Solutions. And these labs in turn inspired the industrial labs built over the next decades by pharmaceutical firms and other private research companies, he notes.

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Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory.

You could do worse, of course, than taking a page from Edison, holder of more than 1,000 patents and inventor of one of the first practical electric lightbulbs. But times have changed since he first established his laboratory, with the advent of new technologies, business models and even scientific disciplines.

This, Weddle says, requires a rethinking of the laboratory space.

Rethinking the Traditional R&D Lab

“When you get into the turn of the [21st] century, and especially the last ten years, as technologies have changed so much and the social acceptance of collaborative technology has changed, it has really driven the need for labs to be different,” he says.

Recently, Weddle and a number of his CBRE colleagues set out to describe those differences in a report, Lab of the Future, which looks at the way laboratory space is changing to meet current and coming research needs.

One factor driving the shift in thinking around lab structure is the fact that old models that assumed that large inputs would equal large outputs no longer appear to be working, Weddle suggested.

Thirty years ago, “the thought was, the more research you do, the better chance you are going to have of finding a blockbuster [product],” he says. “So there was a lot of money put into hiring more, building more labs, but it ultimately turned out to be not true. And that has triggered people to say, ‘We don’t have this right.'”

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Image courtesy of Lab of the Future report, CBRE.

Collaborative Research

At the same time, Weddle says, advances in areas like computer modeling and data sharing and analysis have led to a lessening of emphasis on traditional wet lab work and an increased focus on using big data and modeling to optimize and speed up the research process.

More effective modeling, for instance, lets researchers better predict which projects or lines of inquiry are most likely to lead to success, allowing scientists to “get to the next new idea faster and eliminate what were ultimately going to be failed ideas faster,” Weddle says. And that, hopefully, will mean a more efficient use of resources, enabling substantial outputs even in an environment of more constrained R&D spending.

Also a key factor is the increasing complexity of research projects, notes Hannah Hahn, global workplace innovation manager at CBRE and a co-author of the report.

This, she says, has upped the importance of collaboration both inside and outside the lab. And that means an increase in lab spaces devoted to such collaboration.

Miniaturization of Research Technology

Conventional wet lab work isn’t going away, of course. But here, too, change is coming as factors like miniaturization and automation change the nature of this research. Instruments that once took up an entire room now fit easily on a benchtop, while assays once done manually are increasingly automated. And underlying it all, Hahn says, is a new level of connectivity within and across labs.

The lab of the future might not look much like a lab at all.

“Technology is not only becoming smaller and smarter but also more integrated and embedded into the environment,” she says. “Technology will develop more and more as a seamless and invisible curator with the complexity hidden in the background. This is what we call ‘shy technology.’  The internet of things, sensors, integrated technologies, robotics and automation are all trends that are driving the lab of the future and its productivity.”

In fact, ultimately, Weddle says, the lab of the future might not look much like a lab at all. He cited as an example the possibility of one day doing clinical trials using wearable instruments, as opposed to having patients come into the hospital for regular dosing and blood draws.

“The future is going to be, wear this on your wrist, take this drug once a week, and I am going to collect data [remotely] while you live your life,” he says. “I think that is all part of what the lab of the future is. The lab is going to move out of the lab.”

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