• How to Start a Research Lab - All Bases Covered

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How to Start a Research Lab - All Bases Covered

Aug 11 2022

From government-run public research centres to high-throughput drug discovery facilities operated by pharma giants like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, laboratories come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Setting up a research lab is an exciting endeavour for any scientist and comes with a unique set of challenges and responsibilities. Below, we take a closer look at how to start a research laboratory, what to expect and how to maximise the chances of success.

Budgets, overheads and astronomical costs

Cost is a major factor when starting a research lab. Even the smallest and simplest facilities require significant overheads to get up and running. While every laboratory is different, there are some universal costs associated with starting a research facility:

  • Specialised equipment

Equipment is a major expense for research labs. For example, a pharma lab may need to allocate funds to purchase a next-generation X-Pulse benchtop NMR spectrometer.

  • Supplies

From bases, buffers and acids to solvents and reagents, supplies are another big expense.

  • Outfitting laboratory workspaces

Installing benches, plumbing in wash stations and purchasing furniture are significant expenses faced by new labs.

  • Staff salaries

Whether hiring qualified postdoctoral researchers or university students, staff salaries will take up a large portion of the budget.  

  • Instrument user fees and maintenance contracts

Instrument user fees, maintenance contracts and other “hidden” expenses must be factored into the budget when setting up a research lab.

Unsurprisingly, the costs of starting a research lab vary enormously depending on the type of facility being set up. For example, at the high end of the spectrum is the International Space Station (ISS). The facility cost around US$150 billion to construct, making it one of the most expensive scientific laboratories ever built. Not only does it boast state-of-the-art equipment and instruments, but it’s located more than 200 miles above Earth and travels through space at speeds of over 17,000 miles per hour. Within the ISS are pressurised modules where scientists carry out astronomy and meteorology research, as well as experiments in physics, pharma, human biology and more.

Sourcing funding for a research lab

Even small-scale laboratories demand big setup costs. Luckily, many governments offer funding designed to kickstart operations. For example, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) World Class Laboratories Fund allocated £88 million in the 2020/2021 financial year to support research institutes and university facilities. The goal is to ensure British scientists have access to industry-leading facilities, instruments, equipment and resources.

Laboratories in the United States are also heavily reliant on government grants from organisations like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Other labs secure funding from non-profit organisations in niche areas, such as the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

“As a society, we reap the rewards from this science in the form of technological innovations and advanced knowledge, but we also help pay for it,” states the Understanding Science document published by the University of California at Berkeley, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation. “You indirectly support science everyday through taxes you pay, products and services you purchase from companies, and donations you make to charities. Something as simple as buying a bottle of aspirin may help foot the bill for multiple sclerosis research.”

Check out the article, 'Why UK participation in Horizon Europe matters to you' for more on scientific funding.

Funding for the greater good

A new research laboratory set up in Philadelphia underscores how government grants help support public health. Funded by grants from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the laboratory was set up by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and studies the genetic makeup of COVID variants. Thanks to funding, the lab can sequence up to 60 samples per week, with plans to increase to 300 as the facility grows.

Maximising a Laboratory Startup Package

Ideally, a scientists will receive a startup package when setting up a research lab. This lump sum is designed to cover the costs of setting up a new laboratory from scratch. Funds vary depending on the institution offering the startup package and the type of laboratory being set up. Generally, most scientists can expect to receive a startup package of between US$1 and US$1.5 million to last between three and five years.

Budgeting is essential as this helps ensure all costs can be covered. Budgets will need to factor in the specific needs of the laboratory. For example, a medical research lab may incur unique expenses like animal housing.

Take advantage of startup programs

Many industry-leading providers offer startup programs designed to help kickstart new laboratories. For example, the New Lab Start-Up Program offered by Fisher Scientific offers exclusive access to special offers and discounts for 12 months. These types of programs help stretch startup budgets as far as possible.

Tips for setting up a successful research lab

Every scientific laboratory is unique. A one-size-fits-all approach can’t be applied when setting up a facility. However, there are some general principles that can be used to maximise success:

Invest in high-quality equipment

New scientific discoveries are driven by state-of-the-art equipment. Around the world, scientists rely on cutting-edge devices, instruments and equipment to make new breakthroughs. For example, the latest Octagon 200CL sieve shaker from British-based laboratory equipment supplier Endecotts is one of the most advanced in the world. Game-changing features like ‘closed loop’ amplitude control for superlative reproducibility and an electromagnetic drive with no rotating parts to minimise maintenance set a new standard for sieve shakers.

Invest in smart data management solutions

From liquid-handling robotics to DNA sequencing software, high-throughput technologies allow modern labs to unlock a huge amount of data. Investing in smart data management solutions is critical when setting up a research lab, particularly for high-throughput facilities. Without the right solutions in place, raw data can’t be converted into useful information.

Thermo Fisher is a global leader in Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) designed to track data and improve efficiency, productivity and workflows. The company describes modern LIMS as the “digital backbone of the lab” and offers solutions for all sectors, from biopharma to metals and mining.

“A LIMS does more than just keep track of your sample information, scientific data and results. It allows you to actively manage your entire lab process from instrument maintenance and samples to people and consumables,” reads the Thermo Fisher website. “A LIMS manages laboratory samples and associated data, standardizes workflows, reduces human error and increases efficiency.”

A good LIMS solution should offer the following capabilities:

  • Sample management
  • Instrument management
  • Inventory management
  • Laboratory operations management
  • Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) compliance
  • Workflow management capabilities
  • Lab automation functions
  • Data sharing capabilities to support collaboration
  • Integration and connectivity with other laboratory systems
  • Access to cloud-based storage
  • Compliance with industry regulations
  • Advanced security features to protect data
  • Mobile capabilities to support field work
  • Data visualisation
  • Detailed reports and data analytics
  • Data archiving solutions

Embrace ‘Lab of the Future’ technologies

The Lab of the Future describes a group of technologies and innovations reimagining the limits of modern facilities. Embracing Lab of the Future concepts is one of the best ways to accelerate progress when starting a research lab. Here are the core concepts to consider:

  • Connectivity

Technologies such as advanced LIMS software and Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELN) to support instant access to data. These types of technologies also support data sharing and collaboration.

  • Unlimited data

Cloud-based storage solutions allow for unlimited data generation. This is especially valuable for high-throughput labs.

  • The Internet of Things

The internet of things (IoT) equips physical objects with the capacity to communicate and exchange data. In the Lab of the Future, the IoT will reimagine how information is shared between instruments and systems.

  • Strategic lab design

Co-working is front and centre in the Lab of the Future. When starting a research lab, traditional layouts should be swapped for strategic designs that support collaboration and teamwork. 

  • Artificial intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a mainstay in the Lab of the Future. Machine Learning (ML) algorithms also have a critical role to play.

  • Automation and robotics

The unification of automation and robotics will allow the Lab of the Future to access high-quality data.  The goal is to allow scientists to focus on research and innovation, as opposed to manual tasks.

  • Wearable technology

Virtual Reality (VR) headsets and Augmented Reality (AR) systems will reimagine how scientists analyse data in the Lab of the Future.

Allocate administration time

All laboratories will face significant administrative work during the first few months. It’s important to allocate adequate administration time when starting a research lab. This will help streamline operations and reduce stress.

Work with a centralised chemicals supplier

Stocking up on chemicals is one of the biggest expenses new laboratories must absorb. In the UK, Scientific Laboratory Supplies (SLS) is one of the largest and most trusted independent suppliers of chemicals and works with respected manufacturers across the globe. Working with a centralised supplier eliminates the hassle of locating, receiving and unpacking multiple orders from different chemical companies.

Find out more about the benefits of a single contact and get to know some of the different brands and products offered by SLS in ‘Think Chemicals. Think SLS.’

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Lab Asia 31.1 - February 2024

February 2024

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