With the current COVID-19 pandemic, every company has implemented changes and creative ways to help protect the health and well-being of their employees and customers, as well as keep business, research and production moving. I was curious as to the advantages that digital transformation has provided during this time to companies that have already embraced it, so I reached out to Sasha Novakovich, President and CEO of Alchemy, a provider of chemistry acceleration software. She shared her thoughts on the spike in interest in running a digital lab, and how this pandemic has shown the importance of having a robust digital infrastructure.
PCI: How has your business activity changed since the coronavirus pandemic began?
Novakovich: Alchemy sells software to speed product development and improve service delivery for specialty chemical companies. CASE (coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers) is an important corporate focus for us. It was business as usual for a couple weeks after the Waterborne Symposium in February. The first week of March the city of San Francisco, where we are headquartered, declared a state of emergency. A week later we decided it best to halt all travel and go to 100% WFH across our three locations.
On the customer side, it has been great to see everyone operational. Some companies have products that are now in very high demand. To a one, each is taking precautions to protect its workforce. We have seen a greater appreciation for our solution, which enables lab staff to continue to work efficiently from any device, in any location. The pandemic has shown that consolidated digital access to product and lab project data has become vital. More broadly, we have seen a large spike in interest to experience what it would be like to run a digital lab. We created a digital simulation that any chemist or technical service professional could use. Over 40% of the companies we offered it to wanted to try it out immediately.
PCI: What kinds of things are companies interested in learning from you in recent weeks?
Novakovich: Companies have asked a lot of questions about how to use software to operationalize their coronavirus response. For instance,
- How can we maintain efficiency of our lab staff while also supporting social distancing and a safe work environment?
- Can we easily reallocate work to less-affected geographies?
- How can lab software help me achieve these business objectives?
- How can we roll out new software while we have key personnel working from home?
PCI: What are ways that companies have been implementing social distancing in the lab?
Novakovich: We have seen excellent examples of companies changing their lab operating procedures to ensure employee safety by decreasing the number of human interactions and shared equipment. Concrete examples include:
- Working in two shifts instead of one to decrease the number of staff in the lab at any one time, with disinfection between shifts.
- Dedicating certain people to certain testing to reduce the number of people who share lab equipment to decrease contamination from surfaces and equipment.
- Strictly allocating responsibility for formulating, testing and analysis of data to different team members to reduce physical interaction of staff and contamination from surfaces and equipment.
- Generally, restricting team interactions by sharing work and collaborating with team members digitally instead of in person.
PCI: What advantages do companies that have digitized their labs have during this pandemic?
Novakovich: Great question. We define running a digital lab as providing lab staff with software in which to execute formulating, testing and analysis work for new product development as well as to support customers and products in market. Often, these companies have other core software like CRM or ERP connected to this lab software, as well as lab test equipment. The advantages of running a digital lab are the same as in normal times, they are just more pronounced now.
First and foremost, companies with this kind of software infrastructure in place benefit from complete, searchable, reusable access to their body of lab work from anywhere. During a pandemic, this directly enables work to continue even with new or changing safety precautions rolling out.
Second, having digital operating procedures managed centrally and rolled out locally enables lab management to respond to quickly changing employee safety recommendations. Software digitally reinforces procedural change and promotes compliance, guiding users through the new operating procedures as they work.
Third, when lab staff are able to work equally well in distributed digital teams, then management can load balance lab work in real-time across geographies that are less impacted by the pandemic to maximize lab output safely.
Finally, when all work is executed in a shared digital platform, management has real-time visibility to project status and efficiency metrics, enabling better decisions faster at a time when every day counts.
These advantages bear out in practice. We have seen an average increase of 45% in system usage across our aggregate global customer base since the pandemic was declared. Why? Everyone needs to continue to work, but do so in a more distributed fashion and in new ways. At the same time, management needs more visibility to both operating and project level data as the situation is fluid and companies are trying to keep assets and people productive while managing demand, supply and regulatory shocks. Having an enabling system to do so is more valuable during times like these.
PCI: What has this global situation shown you about the importance of digital transformation?
Novakovich: On the one hand, dramatic events force dramatically different thinking. Cloud technology may have previously been perceived as a liability, though never the case. In a pandemic, the benefits are more accurately apparent. Having robust digital infrastructure to facilitate work may have previously been considered a luxury. In a pandemic, it is risk mitigation and business continuity. Digital transformation has been occurring in each company at its own pace. Covid-19 has simply increased the level of urgency for every company whatever their original pace.
On the other hand, leaders lead in good times and bad. Companies with a strong market position, strategic plan and balance sheet are able to invest countercyclically in R&D, infrastructure, M&A and their people. For these companies digital transformation is a core enabler of operating effectiveness, speeds time to revenue from new product development, and is a key building block for predictive chemistry. In fact, the companies that fail to adopt digital will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
We have always believed that digital infrastructure is an important enabler for all chemical companies. Digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. We meet each company where it is on its journey. This pandemic has reinforced this approach. It has also forced us to be more creative as to how best to support companies at each point in their process, from learning to deploying through upgrading their digital infrastructure. We look forward to helping chemical companies through this paradigm shift. The time is now.
PCI recognizes the importance of digitizing labs across the coatings value chain. We have organized a panel discussion on this very topic to take place during our Coatings Trends & Technologies (CTT) event September 9-10 in Lombard, IL. Sasha will be participating as a panelist, and I look forward to hearing more from her this fall!