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An interview with Neil Benn, Managing Director at Ziath Neil Benn, Managing Director of Ziath Ltd, graduated from Leeds University (UK) with a BSc in Biotechnology and then an MSc from Hertfordshire University in Computer Science. His distinguished career in Laboratory Automation encompasses GlaxoSmithKline, CAT and the Max Plank Institute before setting up Ziath in 2005. He is a recognized authority on sample management in the laboratory. He has developed software and hardware to streamline sample management using 2D-barcoded sample tubes. His current projects involve using AI to improve sample recognition and tracing in the lab.
Q1. Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background in sample management? Neil Benn: I graduated from Leeds University in the UK with a BSc in Biotechnology and then an MSc from Hertfordshire University in Computer Science. I’ve had a long career in Laboratory Automation which encompasses GlaxoSmithKline, CAT and the Max Plank Institute in Dresden, Germany before setting up Ziath in 2005. Before starting the company, I worked in sample management in a variety of different organizations from large pharma to academia. The equipment available to us was expensive, difficult to use, and not particularly reliable, so I set out to make equipment that rectified those problems. That was my first objective. I knew I could make something better. Ziath is a company based in Cambridge, UK. It’s been around for approaching 17 years now and we specialize in instrumentation for sample management. Our primary range of products is associated with 2D barcode scanners for tubes held in racks. We also have sample management software tools to track, pick and select tubes.
One of the key challenges in the global testing programmes for Covid-19 is how to track very large numbers of patient samples passing through inexperienced or under-staffed laboratories that have been asked to increase their daily throughput by as much as 10 times their normal workload.
We’re quite unique in the marketplace in the fact that we’re one of the few companies that design, develop, make, produce, sell, and support their own equipment. We don’t contract anything out at all, which gives us the ability to rapidly develop new products and provide better support than someone who just contracts out the technical aspects of their work. Q2: Proper management of samples is critical to the accuracy and reliability of testing – how has technology improved sample management over the last 20 years? Neil Benn: Back in the old days, when I started, sample management worked by storing the samples in tubes. Possibly, you stored them unlabelled in a freezer. In fact, the first freezer that I used to store samples was a meat freezer in the car park, and the only labelling you had was writing on the rack or on the outside of the storage tube. Or, if you were particularly advanced, you’d have a barcode, a 1D barcode, labelled on the side of the rack. The databases, if they existed, were quite often just Word documents or Excel documents, and there wasn’t much concept of having sophisticated tracking for chemical compounds in the industry. Over the last 20 years sample management has totally changed from these quite basic and rudimentary beginnings.
We have evolved today to sophisticated mobile sample tracking applications. What happened during this journey was that sample management began to be taken as a genuine serious discipline. As organizations realized that their samples were highly valuable, sample management became a real discipline, rather than just something that got shoved aside, given to the junior tech with a freezer in the car park. The introduction of 2D barcodes tubes is what really changed that. I was there at the start of it as a user; the equipment was not easy to use. That’s when we started Ziath. We were the first company that had sample-tracking barcode-reading tools that were incredibly easy to use.
Q3. What is the mission of Ziath and what have been the main accomplishments of your product development team in the last five years? Neil Benn: Our goal is to simplify sample management in the laboratory by the application of intelligently designed software and hardware that really makes life easier for bench scientists. I’ve worked in a Compound Management lab (at GSK) so I know what the pitfalls are and can see how we can develop new products to help scientists. In the next five years we will help them unchain their sample identification from the bench in a remote lab and, using all the benefits of new communications, new software, new optics, and new batteries, take the reader to the freezer. In other words, we’ll empower Technicians to be able to identify samples at the point of storage, wherever that may be, and have the reports ready and waiting on their desktop PC when they return to the lab or office. We’re leveraging the power of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, RFID and new battery technology so that you will be able to pull a frozen track out of storage and in seconds confirm if it’s the right one. We’ve assembled a top-class team of designers and developers from around the world to get this done.
Q4. Which markets have adopted modern 2D Datamatrix barcode sample management and what was their motivation to replace traditional sample label track and trace procedures? Neil Benn: The markets that quickly adopted 2D bar-coded tubes are Compound Libraries in drug discovery, Biobanks storing tissue or seed samples and, more recently, Pathology labs trying to cope with huge numbers of Covid-19 samples. The main motivation was to avoid the points of failure with the old methods. That is, without individual bar-coded tubes, it’s very easy to misidentify a tube. If you pick up a tube and put it down in the wrong place, you’ll never know. This means that you’ll be sending the wrong sample out to the biologist, or chemist, or doctor, whoever it is that’s processing it. Then, there is the issue that if you are handling individual tubes, and you make a mistake, for instance, if you drop a rack of 96 tubes on the floor, then you’ve lost track of all the samples. Another factor is if your data tracking systems aren’t up to scratch. In this instance, there’s a high chance you could lose a sample or not be able to find it again once you placed it in the system, because your data tracking system can’t keep up with the number of samples you’re handling. Q5. What have been the challenges of sample management during the COVID-19 pandemic and how has Ziath technology assisted testing labs? Neil Benn: Well, from early 2020, the world of pathology and infectious disease testing was thrown into chaos by the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the key challenges in the global testing programmes for Covid-19 is how to track very large numbers of patient samples passing through inexperienced or under-staffed laboratories that have been asked to increase their daily throughput by as much as 10 times their normal workload.
Also, it was hard to get hold of sufficient quantities of 2D barcoded tubes and the PCR plates and reagents at the height of the crisis, although that has eased off a bit in recent months as suppliers have ramped up production and commissioned new mould tools. Ziath does not make tubes, only scanners and software, but we supplied fully six times our normal output of scanners per month for 14 months straight to the United Nations / IAEA Global Program for Developing Nations to ensure that more than 190 countries worldwide had access to a quality 2D bar code rack reader to work in their national Covid screening program. I’m very proud of what we achieved with a small team of remarkable people who worked flat-out through Covid to make this happen. Q6: What are the latest trends in sample management and what new products is Ziath developing to address these needs? Neil Benn: These days, organisations are generally storing their samples in 2D barcodes tubes. Worldwide there are a large number of 2D barcoded tube manufacturers, and we see new ones coming out every few years. However, what happens quite often these days is that the samples aren’t stored in meat freezers anymore. They’re stored in either large -80C freezers or liquid nitrogen tanks. But these generally tend to be in an outbuilding, or in a basement, or somewhere that isn’t a nice cosy, insulated lab with lovely Internet and Wi-Fi and power.
So, even though we’ve now got enterprise-scale database systems with barcoded tubes and racks and systems to track all those, you still quite often have to write on a scrap of paper.
You note down which liquid nitrogen tank you want, which rack you want, which shelf you want, which freezer it is in and so on. Then you go down with your scrap of paper, pull the tubes out, tick them off on the scrap of paper, and then bring them back to the lab to check that you’ve got the right ones. What you really want to be able to do is check them at the point of retrieval. Now, that’s not so easy, because rooms where you have fridges and liquid nitrogen tanks aren’t often suitable places for a big laptop. As such, the latest trend is that you can be in the lab and get the information you want on your mobile device. This will then allow you to head down to your semi-automated or manual storage area with an app, and actually process the tubes there and then, and check you have the right ones. This eliminates the need for the pencil and scrap of paper that many people are still using today. Another trend we’ve seen is for adoption of mobile apps and devices in biobanking. When you do biobanking, you are handling human samples such as blood, urine, and biopsy material. Because samples are being taken from a patient or in an operating theatre, they can’t really be processed with standard sample tracking machinery and equipment. Quite often, a biobanking sample gets thrown into a tube and quickly labelled up somehow, and then moved. If you can have a mobile app that allows you to register your biobanking sample against a specific barcoded tube, with the information as close to the point of collection as you can, then that will make your life much easier. If you’ve got something that looks just like a phone or PDA in front of you, it’s not going to worry the patient unduly when compared to having a large and unfamiliar piece of equipment there. There is a lot of hype about the advantages of using the Internet for sample management. Essentially if you can remotely control your sample management process, then you can pick it all up and carry it around with you wherever you go, allowing you to pick up a tube and scan it. We’ve already got a handheld device that allows you to scan barcoded tubes that can interact with third-party systems. It’s quite revolutionary. There’s nothing else like it on the market, and we’re currently working with customers to integrate it into their larger sample management systems. In the future, we’re looking to have our devices support Bluetooth, with batteries in them, so that rather than bringing your racked samples to the barcode scanner, you could bring a barcode scanner to the sample racks. Our next generation is going to be battery enabled, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi-enabled devices that you can pick up and take with you. Our other focus is Support to our scientist customers. When I was in the lab, I’d want to get support, and I’d have to fill a form in or speak to someone, who’d speak to someone, who’d speak to someone else. So, we decided that the support would come from the people who have the knowledge and experience to build the instruments, which we still do today. Support is done by the senior people in the company, rather than by more junior staff members. This ethos is reflected in that whilst I am the Managing Director of the company, I am also responsible for support. Having excellent customer service at our core is vital, because if you are in front of a machine and you need to know how to use it, or it’s not doing something that you think it should be doing, you need a knowledgeable person to help you. This is an area in which Ziath excel. That happens because we build, design, and make our own equipment. No one else does that. The launch of several generations of innovative equipment from Ziath has helped revolutionize the use of sample tracking. We don’t make 2D barcoded tubes; we’ll work with anybody’s tubes. We like to call it “tube agnostic”. You can choose whichever supplier you want to use, and we guarantee our stuff will work with all the 2D Datamatrix tubes currently on the market. So, that’s where we are now. As I have previously said, our future encompasses embracing the concept of mobile technologies, including portable scanners. You’ll be able to control the scanners from a web page or control your tube rack scanners from a phone. We’re looking to unchain the whole sample tracking process from the bench and bring it as close to the point of storage as possible, which is the liquid nitrogen tanks and the freezers.
To know more about Ziath product and services: https://ziath.com/
About Ziath: Ziath specialises in instrumentation control and information management in both the academic and the pharmaceutical/biotech industry sectors with a focus on the application of laboratory automation. In particular, we focus on managing large sample libraries (compound management, biobanking and sample management) using 2D datamatrix tubes. Founded in 2005 by scientists and engineers; Ziath is over a decade old and is proud to server customers across the world. Ziath develops innovative new products designed to simplify processes in life science organisations. In addition, Ziath offers consulting and contracting work to clients. Contact us to find out more information.