Core facilities, or core labs, are shared, centralized facilities within research institutions that provide external research teams with access to instruments, technologies, and services (such as consultation and sample processing) that they might not otherwise have access to.
External labs are then able to make use of cutting-edge equipment in designing and executing experiments, without having to use up their budgets on procuring expensive instrumentation.
This arrangement also works to facilitate collaboration between researchers from different institutions, thereby promoting exchanges of expertise and improving the quality of data. In this article, we discuss the important role that core facilities play in advancing the research of the life sciences, as well as mitigating core facility challenges managers face through the use of laboratory automation.
The Roles of Core Facilities in Advancing Life Sciences Research
Core facilities work effectively as contract research labs, lending support to peer-reviewed research efforts, or additional capacity to commercial projects such as testing new drugs and therapies. Within an already budget-conscious lab, budgeting for costly infrastructure and equipment to carry out experiments is a substantial challenge for lab managers, and specialized equipment can then be difficult and expensive to maintain – with staff needing to be training extensively on the proper use and maintenance of instrumentation.
These challenges can largely be negated by outsourcing to a core facility, that will provide researchers with access to cutting-edge equipment, as well as the expertise of facility staff who are trained to troubleshoot abnormal data and can provide feedback to researchers – thereby improving the quality of analysis, and exposing research teams to innovative methodologies. For example, at the Biomaterials and Microfluidics core facility in Paris, core facility staff organize regular meetings with users of the facility to better understand their experimental needs and project objectives. Staff are then allocated to the projects they are more passionate about and experienced in, to help external research teams reduce risk for their project ideas, and develop proofs of concept. The expertise of core facility staff is instrumental in advancing the research of stakeholders. At the Nano and Pico Characterization Lab within the California Nanosystems Institute at UCLA, 57% of staff have PhDs, 40% have post-doctorate experience, and 40% have previously worked in the industry – lending invaluable expertise to the projects of external research teams.
3 Core Facility Challenges
Recruitment and Retention
One of the major considerations for core facilities is how to build a strong team of core staff. Teams need to be well-versed in running a variety of standardized procedures to enable the core facility to monetize their service portfolio, and equipment must facilitate providing services to meet strict research deadlines. One of the complications with building an expert team stems from staff remuneration. Researchers that are trained to run high throughput drug screening platforms, for example, are likely to be better compensated at industry companies rather than in academic core facilities, which typically operate within tighter budgets. This can make attracting and retaining talent difficult – especially considering the level of expertise needed to operate complex technologies.
On average, core facility personnel working in industry are paid 40% more than their counterparts working in academic core facilities, highlighting a strong incentive for talent to flock to the private sector. However, job satisfaction amongst core facility personnel is attributed mainly to factors relating to the work environment, such as autonomy over research projects and intellectual challenge – so curating an environment where staff are challenged and stimulated is important for recruitment and retention.
Return on Investment
Another significant consideration for core facilities is achieving a return on investment. Procuring expensive technologies and instrumentation is required to position a core facility to provide services to external labs, and this represents a significant capital investment. Acquisition, maintenance, and upgrading of scientific equipment requires a substantial budget, and this will need to be subsidized by providing services to facility users. This means core facilities need to be equipped to perform standardized procedures, as well as to provide custom solutions for users. Offering niche services is a way for core facilities to establish value to external users, perhaps by providing access to uncommon or expensive testing methods. For example, the National University of Singapore, whose electrophysiology core facility provides users access to patch clamp electrophysiology – a rarity in Singapore.
In order to monetize their services, it is important that core facilities are able to pivot to stay relevant and useful to external research facilities, by providing a wide range of services and equipment. Furthermore, core lab facilities face challenges in managing both internal and external facility users. Lab managers must manage their own teams, as well as handle issues from facility users. This involved leading internal teams, managing budgets, and maintaining a level of technical proficiency in order to support staff and clients with equipment troubleshooting.
A similar issue for core facilities is creating broader awareness of the usefulness of their services – in effect, marketing their service portfolio. A lack of awareness of core facilities and the services they provide contributes to an under-utilization of their cutting-edge technologies and resources, thereby diminishing the return on investment for core facilities, and slowing the rate of discovery. Only 40% of individual research programs pay for and use core lab services; receiving acknowledgement in publications is one way to spread awareness in the scientific community, but this figure represents a significant growth potential for core facility marketers.
Mitigating Core Facility Challenges with Automation
The establishment of core facilities represents a significant capital investment, a challenge which is compounded by difficulties in attracting and retaining expert staff, and increasing marketing reach. An important tool in improving the effectiveness and thus service quality of core facilities is the procurement of flexible automation systems. Automating time-consuming tasks along the sample processing lifecycle helps to free up valuable staff time for analysis and the reconciliation of outlying results. Labeling tubes, for example, is a time-consuming and low value task, that uses staff time inefficiently, and creates employee churn. Automating this task with a system such as the TubeWriter 360 significantly expands lab capacity by freeing up staff resources, and completing lengthy and menial processes in a fraction of the time.
Delivering services to external labs to strict deadlines and with a guaranteed level of quality and consistency is crucial in securing revenue to keep core facilities running – objectives that automation helps to advance. Furthermore, automating manual tasks such as tube labeling helps to reduce downtime in the lab. The TubeWriter prints directly onto labware, eliminating the need for labels which can deteriorate and become jammed in testing equipment, disrupting processing and potentially compromising samples. As well as this, automation allows your lab to maintain a consistent level of throughput capacity, even in the case of staff absence. Consistency is crucial to providing high quality services, and therefore establishing your core facility’s value among other life sciences institutions.