Research Services - A Crown of Thorns

On completion of our first year as a start-up, our CEO Kumar wrote a blog on his experience of the first year. He defined entrepreneur as "someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down". Indeed, we as a company, had jumped off the cliff and we were building our plane with nothing but research services as nuts and bolts.

We began our research services at the tail end of "array-based era" and at the "leading tail of genomics era" in India, and this blog is a retrospection of the expectations (customers and we had), the exasperations (we experienced), and enrichments (we gained) during that phase.

The Expectation

At its core, the expectation was simple. Provide the best research service as possible.

Modifying the crux of a market research survey for "determining the expectations and perceptions of customers through marketing research", the following flow represents an optimal approach to building an effective research service. 

While the expectation of the company was to build and optimize this cycle, adopt it to its fullest potential, the goal was of course to satisfy the customer to the best of our ability.

So, we knew, that the one who achieves these, and achieves them well, will wear "The Crown of Research Services".

The Exasperation

Even though the expectation of customers and in turn the company was clear, keeping up with those expectations was as hard as it can get. Meeting every aspect of the cycle, be it the kind of research data we analysed, the cost for the service we provided, prioritizing the customers and to review this cycle every now and then to optimize and keep the cycle intact was indeed exasperating.

However, in our experience, the most exasperating thing was with respect to the Turn Around Time (TAT), which in turn was linked to what was expected out of us. Without going into any of funny or frustrating anecdotes, the exasperation almost always began with the question,

How fast can you analyse our data?!

We get that researchers are always under pressure of completing their deadlines and publishing their findings as fast as possible (but we also thought why are we still stuck with the 'publish or perish' attitude). But our exasperation was when the bioinformatics analysis was considered as a magic wand of sorts, with which every analysis, irrespective of the size and complexity of the data, happens with a snap. They probably thought (still think) that we bioinformaticians have a modified keyboard of sorts (perhaps, an Infinity Gauntlet) that will do all the analysis with click of a button.

But also, must admit, in the zeal of things, and in retrospect, to the naivety of us, we committed to a flat 3-day TAT for all research services. No matter what the data size was, no matter which organism, no matter if it had a reference genome or annotation, no matter what kind of analysis (genomic, transcriptomic or any other), we committed to a flat 3-day TAT. We did work hard to achieve this TAT and we indeed achieved this short (read insane) TAT for many projects, improved our computational and human resources, utilized them well, assembled whole new pipelines from already existing cross-platform bioinfo tools and sustained this for some time.

Yet the exasperation was building up. With every project, the size of the data we dealt with quadrupled, projects involving non-model organisms started pouring in, the unavailability of tools for niche analysis (say RADSeq and ATACSeq), all added to our exasperation. Many custom projects (which needed creation of customized scripts and analysis) we performed were the toughest of the lot, which needed intense resources, time and focus. To add on to this, our internal conflicts and creative differences also crept up a bit and began a vicious cycle of mismanaged projects.

That's when we realized we have actually worn “the Crown of Thorns”!!

The Enrichment

Of course, as with almost all exasperation comes a sense of enrichment, we were indeed enriched.

At the end of each project, each cycle of customer relations, each cycle of improvement, we were enriched with new insights into every aspect of research services. We crunched hundreds of terabytes of data, wide variety of data (almost any kind of seq data), gained experience with wide variety of customers (local, national and international) and completed north of 250 research projects.

Successful completion of these projects provided us with the much-needed insight and experience to build our flagship products - BugSpeaks® and Genome Rich Signature® - along with many other supplementary panels and services. Our current pursuit of clinical and wellness services no doubt has its own challenges, but it was the research services that undoubtedly laid the foundation for these and kept us afloat financially as we look for future funding opportunities. Research services, at its core, made us realize the value of customers, customer satisfaction and loyalty and we have utilized this acquired knowledge well.

Apart from this, one of the best insights we acquired during this experience was about the reporting aspects of the services. Irrespective of research, clinical or wellness services, irrespective of the complexity of data or analysis or process, the reporting must be customer friendly. Many researchers availing our services were venturing into next gen sequencing-based analysis for the first time, and at the end of the day they wanted a clear and simple report, explaining the bioinformatics steps (as biologist friendly as possible), complementing with clearly labelled data sheets and plots. Because, admittedly, all their previous research service providers had either resorted to providing just excel sheets and plots, without supplementing it with explanations or have gone heavy on unnecessary interpretation of the data, without performing a comprehensive analysis.

When we pivoted towards wellness services, one the main things we made sure was that the reporting must be best in its class, but without compromising on its presentation and simplicity of it. Because, if a researcher, who is already acquainted with the kind of analysis and data he will be dealing with, demands a simplistic explanation of the analysis performed, the reports catering to the wellness domain, involving laymen, must be simple, actionable and effective. And we are proud today that both – BugSpeaks® and Genome Rich Signature® – reports are state of the art and we owe this to the experience we gained from research services.

To Conclude...

It’s been close to 5 years since we provided our first research service and the following statement sums up the shear frustration, yet rich rewards we have reaped till date.

We’re built of contradictions, all of us. It’s those opposing forces that give us strength, like an arch, each block pressing the next. Give me a man whose parts are all aligned in agreement and I’ll show you madness. We walk a narrow path, insanity to each side. A man without contradictions to balance him will soon veer off.”

- Mark Lawrence, King of Thorns

We haven't veered off
We are still standing and building our arc
That's telling something about us

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