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The State of Chemistry and Materials Science R&D

A Digital Perspective

Albert Co-Founder and CEO Nick Talken, industry veteran and technology pioneer, has his fingers on the pulse of the digital agendas at many of the top Chemistry and Materials Science R&D organizations around the world. Here, he shares his perspectives on the current state of the industry in its journey towards the lab of the future and AI-fueled discovery, and what to expect as we enter 2024.

Q: You’ve talked to the most senior decision-makers in Chemistry and Materials Science R&D about their biggest concerns and opportunities. What are you hearing?

A: There are a lot of dynamics shaping the R&D agendas in this industry right now, but three themes keep rising to the top in almost every conversation.

The first one, without a doubt, is sustainability. Researchers are doubling down their efforts on developing eco-friendly alternatives to traditional materials, focusing on renewable resources, biodegradability, and reduced environmental impact. They are feeling immense pressure in this area. It’s not just a driving force in new product development; it is the driving force.

Second is attracting and retaining top talent. While most industries are grappling with a shortage in STEM talent, the Chemistry and Materials Science space seems to be hit particularly hard. Scientists and chemists, especially those who are digital natives, are increasingly being pulled towards ‘newer’ industries and more technologically advanced areas. In an effort to prevent or reverse this trend, a lot of R&D leaders are concentrating on the modernization of their facilities, processes, and tech stack.

Third is speed. The pace of innovation is faster than it’s ever been in history, and companies are relying on Chemistry and Materials Science teams to keep up. Companies are launching new consumer products—from shoes to cars to electronics—at ever faster paces, putting pressure on the materials technology behind those products. The Chemistry and Materials Science industry is challenged to immediately adapt to rapid innovation. They want to move faster, but outdated legacy systems and processes are making that hard.

Q: These themes, especially the last two, seem to suggest a more accelerated push to lab of the future and digitization. Is that what you’re seeing?

A: Yes, absolutely. The appetite for digitization in R&D has never been higher, driven in large part by the need for modernization and speed. The explosion of ChatGPT in 2023 has also helped to drive a huge influx of interest in people wanting to digitize their labs and clean up their data so it’s AI-ready. So, in that sense, yes, we are seeing a much more accelerated push to lab of the future. Every R&D leader we speak with knows this is the direction of the future and they want to harness it as a competitive advantage.

That said, it’s taking some of these organizations longer than they want to take the leap. There are companies that have been around for 100+ years in an industry that is notoriously risk-averse and conservative due to the nature of the hazardous substances they work with. Some of these labs still don’t have consistent WiFi! That’s a lot of history and ways of working to unpack. However, things are starting to change.

This next year will see more data collection in R&D than ever before by a considerable amount. And we expect this amount will increase threefold each year going forward for many years to come. What this means is that companies that start today will be three times further ahead in data in one year and nearly 10 times ahead the following year.

Q: You mentioned the “magic word,” ChatGPT. What’s your take on AI in this industry? Do you think we’ll see any noteworthy Chemistry and Materials Science R&D AI success stories in 2024?

A: We already have some early AI success stories, and I believe 2024 will hand us many more examples of how R&D organizations are successfully leveraging AI to speed up innovation.

A few months ago, Albert hosted a summit with nearly a dozen Chemistry and Materials Science CTOs from Fortune 500 companies, where we invited an expert from OpenAI to speak. It was eye-opening for all of us, myself included. The number one point they made was that the technology we need in order to leverage AI is here today. It’s ready for the taking. What’s missing in the industry are two things. First is the clear path to utilize AI to its full potential, especially the critical importance of lab digitization. And second, a complete view of how AI could impact IP ownership and inventorship. Many R&D organizations want to make sure their most important information and innovation assets are protected before they fully jump on board. But when they do come on board—and I believe that will be very soon—we’ll start seeing some astonishing results, as we’re already beginning to see with Albert’s customers.

Q: You mentioned sustainability as the top theme right now in Chemistry and Materials Science R&D. How do you see data and digital supporting that?

A: There are two big opportunities here. The most significant is in how a fully digitized R&D ecosystem could empower scientists with the visibility to know the sustainability properties of their products in the earliest stages of experimentation. Scientists are under extraordinary pressure to find more sustainable alternatives as quickly as possible. They want to be able to draw from the learnings of past experiments or the tribal knowledge of other scientists so they can break new ground quickly. However, because most of their data on past and current experiments is locked up in various siloed systems and spreadsheets, they have no choice but to rely on educated guesswork, which often leads to multiple dead ends. By having all their data structured and integrated in one system, they can now harness the power of ML and AI to simulate and predict which formulations have the greatest chance of hitting the sustainability targets before they even approach the bench. By having a stronger starting point with their experiments, these scientists should be able to achieve breakthroughs in sustainability faster.

The second big opportunity here is in how a data-driven R&D ecosystem could significantly reduce laboratory waste. By enabling scientists to achieve breakthroughs with fewer experiments and iterations, the lab will naturally produce less waste in the process. In addition, digitizing the raw material inventory management process will help R&D organizations to have a better understanding of the raw materials they have in stock across locations so they can avoid over-ordering, and therefore wasting and disposing of, these materials.

Sustainability is a huge focus for Albert, both as a company and as a platform. Stay tuned for more exciting updates in this area in 2024.

Q: Speaking of 2024, what are you the most excited about?

A: There’s a lot to be excited about in 2024. We mentioned most of the big ones already—the growth of AI, continued progress with paperless lab of the future initiatives, and increasing focus on how digital can drive sustainable product development. But I think what gets me most excited when I go to work each day is thinking about how much we are all going to learn this year. 2024 is the year when we will see several major lab of the future initiatives really get off the ground in a meaningful way. When that happens, the learnings and insights will multiply exponentially. We’re getting very close to a tipping point for digital in this industry, and I think 2024 is going to go down in history as the year that helped us get there.

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