by iLab Solutions, LLC in collaboration with Ryan Duggan and David Leclerc of UCFlow
iLab Solutions has the opportunity to interact with some of the best minds in the core facility community by working with over 250 cores from nearly 30 research institutions. Our professional services team works one-on-one with each core to configure our system to meet their individual needs. From all of this exposure, we have not only fine-tuned our software to the practical needs of cores, but we have also gleaned some important insights about what makes cores successful.
Ryan Duggan and David Leclerc are the Technical Director and Lab Manager from the flow cytometry core at the University of Chicago (UCFlow). They recently made the decision to adopt iLab’s Core Facility Management software. During the evaluation process we quickly realized that they run a very successful core whose insight and experience would be valuable to the rest of the shared resources community.
To capture some of Ryan and David’s best practices for running their core, iLab Solutions got to ‘hangout’ (on Google+) with the UCFlow bloggers and ask about their methods, their mantra, and why they are so popular on the flow cytometry scene.
The Balancing Act
What are some of things you do in your core to help save money without sacrificing the services and resources you offer your researchers?
Fixed costs + Variable costs = Recharge + Funding. This over-simplified equation is what you need to keep in the back of your mind when thinking about budgets and saving money. Your goal is to reduce [variable] costs and/or increase recharge; [you can assume fixed costs and funding remain relatively constant if you are an established core].
The way we’ve tried to tackle this problem on the cost side is to forgo the traditional OEM service contract and “self-insure” – budgeting approximately 50% of the normal cost of a service contract for scheduled maintenance and service calls. In employing this strategy, we have never exceeded our budget over the past 10 years. This works well for us because we have a lot of instruments, so it would be rare for all of them to have major issues every year, and our technical staff has become proficient at fixing many of the common problems on the instruments, avoiding the need for a service call.
On the recharge side of things, the goal is to not necessarily increase recharge rates but to capture as much usage as possible. You should try and not let capacity issues be the reason your usage plateaus. Finding creative ways to increase capacity will surely increase usage, which in turn bumps up your recharge revenue. [To increase usage], train your users to operate equipment unaided and allow them 24/7 access (UCFlow provides over 12,000 hours of billable service annually with a staff of 4 – the equivalent of a 60-hour workweek for all 4 FTEs with no days off). To increase capacity, expand your hours of operation by way of technical staff split shifts. Or, if possible, acquire another instrument. It should be noted that acquiring a duplicate piece of equipment does not [always] duplicate the cost of ownership and operation but it does double the potential recharge revenue.
One other area to consider when thinking about cost cutting is administration of the core services, namely scheduling, usage tracking, usage reporting, and billing. It is very easy to get caught up in extremely inefficient ways of performing such mundane tasks. We estimate that we may use up to 20% of an FTE to perform such tasks in a very manual and labor-intensive way. Even taking measures such as these, the data is rarely integrated and not standardized which makes reporting cumbersome. Utilizing a unified, user-friendly service such as iLab’s Core Facility Management software can actually reduce the overall costs of performing these necessary, but often overlooked, tasks.
Lastly, figure out when your users are actually using your facility. It doesn’t make sense to have your staff work from 8AM – 4PM when your user base is using your facility 12PM – 8PM [which is what we found]. We’ve been working with flexible staff shifts to try and cover our services from 10AM – 8PM, Monday – Friday. This increases our efficiency and utilizes the staff’s time to its fullest.
One area of lost revenue has been actual equipment usage vs. scheduled usage time, how have you handled this disparity?
We retrospectively look at the disparities between actual usage and scheduled usage on an infrequent basis. At this point, we try to find specific offenders and persuade them to change their behavior. The disparity is sometimes very large… and this causes a perceived lack of capacity, which could then spur investigators to invest in their own equipment outside of the core. In addition, user satisfaction in the core typically dips. It is therefore imperative to have an easy way to monitor the disparity, penalize abusers of the system (when necessary), and restore order.
The underlying issue here is the access to instrumentation. This observed overbooking implies an inefficient usage of some of our instruments. In our facility, the problem mainly affects the high-end analyzers. While we strongly suspect many users utilize those instruments for experiments that do not require the level of sophistication that they offer, it is very difficult to spot those individuals, let alone modify their behavior. Ultimately, the core facility will need to offer incentives powerful enough to sway the choice of the users. Offering a price structure along instrument capabilities may be a good way to start.
Systems like iLab, which provide this type of reconciliation and resource usage analysis at the push of a button, can be indispensable tools in maintaining user satisfaction and demonstrates efficiency in the utility of our resources. There is also the ability to recover costs associated with reserved but unused instrument time.
What other advice do you have for other cores that are feeling stretched?
Certainly [we] are being asked to “do more with less”. Technological developments in flow cytometry and many other technologies have made it easier for users to successfully complete their own experiments. Our core facility has capitalized on that trend by adopting tools that allow our users to take full control of their experiments. Our online scheduler and usage tracking software give them 24/7 access to all of the instruments, while support is provided by instant communication software and remote control tools. This has the double benefit of increasing usage on our instruments, and in turn increasing our revenue, while allowing the users to manage their experiments regardless of the lab staff schedule. The time we don’t spend dealing with the schedule can be spent on training or data analysis consultation.
Back to the Future
What have you done to bring your core, both from a technology perspective and a business perspective, into the 21st century?
The key to staying on the cutting edge of technology is fostering relationships with technology manufacturers through regular contact and [letting them know that] you are ready and willing to be a beta test partner. By getting early access to cutting edge technology you can ready yourself to write strong proposals to acquire instrumentation. In addition, you position your core as the expert on campus or possibly [in the region].
On the business end of core facility management, quality service still reigns supreme. If your users are confident that you and your staff are doing everything possible to help make their experiments a success they will be more likely to utilize you in the future.
There needs to be a shift of attitudes from a core facility acting as a collaborator to a core facility acting as a service provider. As such, the commonly held axiom about the customer always being right should be your mantra.
Core facilities at research institutions can be part of a centralized model within a department or across an institution or a decentralized model — each core for itself! Which model does your core fall under?
Core facilities at the University of Chicago fall under the administrative oversight of the Office of Shared Research Facilities (OSRF). The OSRF serves as the home department for the cores and ensures access for investigators in an equitable fashion.
As part of a central administrative body, a core facility may have many services performed for them by a group that is completely invested in the mission of the core. This may not be the case in a decentralized model where a core facility may fall under the administrative oversight of a department whose primary obligation is to the faculty within that department.
At the University of Chicago, the OSRF provides support in HR, IT, billing, ordering, budget planning, grant submission, and other administrative duties. They also serve as an institutional champion for core facilities in terms of capital investment and operational support.
What are the advantages to being part of a centralized model?
Having centralized support from your institution can help to alleviate a lot of the financial pressures on the individual cores. For example, the institution could provide on-demand emergency funds for instrument catastrophes. If you wanted to reduce operating costs by self-insuring you could ask the institution to back you up with emergency funds in case something big broke. You could then repay that emergency loan over the next few years to spread the burden over time. The net loss to the institution is null, but the potential for large savings on the core operations is great. Using this centralized model has been extremely helpful in streamlining operations and presents a unified structure to the University’s faculty.
Any tips in securing and maintaining NIH grants?
Core facilities most commonly write grant proposals for new equipment utilizing the (formerly) NCRR S-10 Shared Instrumentation Grant Program, or equivalent programs from the NSF. These types of grant proposals are fairly formulaic, but the key things to emphasize include scientific justification, institutional support, and demonstration of technical expertise. If you can nail these three aspects, you’re likely to score well. UCFlow has been fortunate to receive 2 such grants in the past 4 years (2008 & 2010).
In terms of scientific justification you’ll need to demonstrate how the proposed applications could be performed to such a higher degree of eloquence that it would be a shame not to have this instrument. You’ll also need to get your institution to promise you the world if you’re funded. This mostly includes things like salary support for technical staff to operate the instrument, or service contract support for a few years.
To ensure institutional support, you’ll need to constantly educate your faculty so they can push the application side of the technology. One easy way we try to accomplish this is to attend lab meetings where data is being presented and next-step brainstorming is taking place. When it comes time to request funds to get a next generation piece of equipment, you’ll already have faculty ready to go to bat for you.
To demonstrate technical aptitude, you’ll want to lay out a detailed plan of how you will administer the instrument including maintenance, scheduling, usage tracking, training, etc. But, the best piece of advice I can give to people who are a bit hesitant to write these types of proposals is to just write one. There is no better learning experience than going through the process as many times as you can. I typically write at least one of these proposals every year (usually the NIH S-10). You can never get funded if you never submit.
How do you cultivate referrals to expand your core business?
There are two types of users who will voice their opinion – those who have had really good experiences and those who have had really poor experiences. If you are focusing on providing the highest quality services while thoughtfully addressing issues that come up, you should be able to maintain a positive reputation. This reputation should be fostered outside of the university as well. This includes building relationships at conferences and at local user groups.
Another way to cultivate referrals is to be accessible. The worst thing you can do is have a user recommend your core facility to a colleague and when that colleague tries to contact you they get no immediate response. People are typically hesitant to give out their contact information, but I try to give people multiple options to contact me including my personal cell phone number. In fact a simple gesture as this makes people feel like they are getting extra special attention.
Finally, we should mention that you have established a successful connection to your customer base and the flow community through use of various social media such as your blog and Facebook page. Can you talk about what have you done to make those so successful?
The drawback of running a facility where users are allowed to use the instruments on their own is the loss of direct feedback. While word-of-mouth communication remains the best way to increase exposure, users who run into some issues with their experiments and do not contact the lab for assistance are unlikely to provide positive feedback. Therefore it is critical to multiply the communication channels – instant messaging/SMS, social media, online survey, etc., in order to make sure that problems are getting solved before things escalate and reputations are tarnished.
Using Social Media and other ‘tools’ really gets to the heart of 21st century communication. In the past the way you might want to disseminate information to your group of users would be either an email blast or posted flyers. Today, people are inundated with so much email they end up ignoring a vast majority of it. Also, people walking down the halls are not stopping to read flyers because they’re usually staring at their phones.
Avenues for communication have changed, and core facilities need to change with them. In addition, this change encompasses a marketing strategy that moves away from flatly broadcasting messages (e.g. E-mails) to an interactive platform whereby the facility has an opportunity to not just get their message out, but to listen to what their users have to say – a social conversation.
We, at UCFlow, have had good success in implementing these changes. At first we started a blog (http://ucflow.blogspot.com) to archive information that we felt we were explaining to users over and over again. This also served as sort of an online journal of important things taking place in the lab, including new technology reviews, industry trends, and educational entries. This endeavor, which started as a simple entry on September 24, 2007, has grown into a decent sized blog that receives about 10,000 visits a year – a modest number for a blog, but not bad for a niche community.
A couple of years ago, we needed another venue for shorter snippets of information not worthy of an entire blog post. We set up a Facebook page (facebook.com/ucflow) to not only allow us to post information, but to allow free flowing discussion amongst the users. So now, while our users are walking down the hall checking out their Facebook feed, posts from us simply pop in line with the rest of their friends’ posts.
This all feeds back to user engagement and satisfaction that in turn boosts exposure and increases usage – it’s really about “Friendraising not Fundraising”. We try to have a presence in most of the social media tools today including Twitter (@ucflow), Google Plus (keyword ucflow), and LinkedIn. We’ve also made a conscious decision to market the core in a unified manner utilizing the brand UCFlow. It shows up in all of our materials and makes it easy for people outside of the University to find us.
UCFlow was originally founded in 1987 by Dr. Jeffrey Bluestone, who had assumed responsibility for instrumentation brought to the University from nearby La Rabida Children’s Hospital by Dr. Hans Schreiber. In the early years it was used by about 8 PI’s, and had a couple of instruments. In CY2011, they served 146 different PI’s totaling over 12,000 hours of billable time and resulting in over 50 publications annually. Their total user base is approximately 450 active users spanning a dozen different disciplines in the Biological Sciences. Awards include NIH Shared Instrumentation Grants numerous times (most recently in 2008, 2010), and have been continuously funded by the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center since inception. UCFlow currently manages and operates a cadre of instrumentation representing a sum total investment of well over $3Million.
Ryan Duggan serves as the Technical Director of The University of Chicago Flow Cytometry Core Facility (UCFlow) and is the primary author behind www.ucflow.blogspot.com. He can be contacted directly via email at: email@example.com or to find him elsewhere on the interwebs visit,http://about.me/ryanduggan.
David Leclerc is currently the Lab Manager at UCFlow and manages day-to-day operations of the facility. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded in 2006, iLab Solutions is a leader in providing web-based management software designed to support core facilities and research labs at hospitals, universities, and other academic research institutions.
iLab offers a suite of web-based tools for academic research management. The functionality includes core facility service request management, enhanced sample management functionality, equipment reservation and usage tracking, billing and invoicing, reporting, and lab requisitioning and spend tracking tools.
iLab is a privately-held Limited Liability Company organized under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our primary offices are located at Ten Post Office Square, 8th Floor, Boston, MA 02109. Please address all correspondence to P.O. Box 380330, Cambridge, MA 02238-0330 or email@example.com. iLab can be reached by phone 8.30am-8.30pm Eastern at 617.297.2805or via web chat at www.ilabsolutions.com.