From its launch in 2015, Obsidian Therapeutics has been focused on control—as in developing cell and gene therapies in which the level and timing of protein activity are fully regulated in a dose-dependent manner by a small molecule drug through the company’s cytoDRIVE™ platform.
So when COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on the world this past winter, the Cambridge, MA-based biotech pivoted to control in a different context. Obsidian laid out its development plans three months in advance when it shifted to work-from-home mode the week of March 9, with lab access limited to essential workers. That policy was enforced six days later when CEO Paul K. Wotton, PhD, came into the office, only to be asked to leave by lab techs.
The shift to work-from-home prompted Obsidian to plan how its approximately 60 staffers would do their jobs sheltered in place and, as life and operations returned to normal, back in its labs and offices. Wotton turned to Nic Betts, who joined the company last fall, to develop software that would enable Obsidian staffers to enter the lab while ensuring that no other staffers would be working from there simultaneously if they needed the same equipment.
Betts—a 22-year Pfizer veteran who is now Obsidian’s senior director, head of IT and Facilities—assembled an IT team that included data scientist Henry Rogalin, who developed in-house Obsidian’s Safe Workplace Function Tool (SWFT) Productivity Solution. The IT team worked in collaboration with a safety and facilities capacity team led by Jillian Giguere, senior manager of laboratory operations, facilities, and EHS [environment, health, and safety].
SWFT is a web-based application built and integrated into Microsoft 365, and designed to let scientists view and schedule lab-based activities by date, time, and lab location. SWFT is also designed to foster collaboration and coordination between research teams by predicting scheduling and occupancy conflicts, which allows team members to adjust their schedules in order to promote social distancing in the lab and office.
“I think this basically just shows you that even a biotech company can be innovative in areas outside biotech,” Wotton quipped.
Obsidian recently announced it will share the architecture and components of SWFT on an open-source basis with biopharmas of all sizes. More than 20 companies have expressed interest in the solution, Betts said.
Wotton and Betts recently discussed the challenges of maintaining research activity and workplace productivity for Obsidian through the pandemic, and how SWFT is designed to address them, with GEN Edge, in a joint interview lightly edited for length and clarity.
GEN EDGE: You and Nic focused on improving Obsidian’s IT before COVID-19. What did the company do over the winter that paid off this spring?
WOTTON: We had actually initiated a planning process when I joined the company a year ago. And one of the gaps we found was our IT system. Nic came to us in October, and he had a really good background. He had a strategy to build IT, so we let him do it. At some point, senior management has to build trust in people, and vice versa.
We implemented Microsoft teams, implemented an internal website where we can share information, text each other on it. It was put in place in early January as well. None of us imagined the impact it would have on us just 6 to 8 weeks later when we were suddenly all working from home.
Most biotech companies of our size do not bring in IT at the right time. They cobble it together by using external vendors, and in this day and age, you have to use it as a strategic tool to help you get to where you want to be.
Nic was very clear when he interviewed. He did not just want to be someone who came in and fixes everyone’s computers. What he wanted to do was to actually build an information tech system that allowed us to share information more effectively. And that one decision, I think, that we made to bring Nic in maintained our productivity through COVID.
How did COVID-19 help bring about the SWFT Solution?
WOTTON: What we were faced with in the middle of February was a situation where we recognized that the COVID-19 outbreak was serious and here to stay. We had the benefit of having [chief research and development officer] Catherine Stehman-Breen, MD, on our team. She’s trained as an epidemiologist. She said this is going to be a pandemic, and it’s going to be here for a while. We discussed planning for a prolonged shutdown at that point.
Catherine got her R&D team busy on how to triage our programs and focus on our most important ones going forward if we were forced to shut down for whatever reason. Catherine was able within a couple weeks to make sure our development plans were up and running. We had the teams focused on doing the right things, and focused on the right programs, including one with Bristol-Myers Squibb [BMS] that we have partnered with on CAR-Ts.
[The companies collaborate to develop regulated cell therapies that apply Obsidian’s cytoDRiVE™ platform and incorporate immunomodulatory factors IL12 and CD40. The partnership was launched in February 2019 by Obsidian and Celgene, which BMS acquired last year for $74 billion.]
Around March 9, we were all set up, we had our plans, we were looking ahead. It became obvious to us that we would do the best thing by closing down the office space and the facility. We made a decision as a management group that we were going to keep going, no matter what. At the same time, we were only going to keep going if we could maintain a safe workplace for everyone that was working in the facility.
We started working from home later on that week, but allowed our essential workers in the lab to start coming in and working with safe social distance. We issued letters to the essential staff to enable them to cross police lines, if necessary, with a justification as to why they were doing it. The facilities manager [Jillian Giguere], together with Nic, had already done things like buy as much Purell® [hand sanitizer] as we could physically manage carrying into the facilities.
After I showed up in the facility one day, I was asked to leave by people working in the facility. That was the right call. Nic was the only executive who was going into the facility on a regular basis. We were lucky to have him going in there, because he was able to develop a process which ultimately led to the SWFT software solution.
How did the SWFT Solution come about?
BETTS: We took four key steps, which is really what we refer to as our SWFT tool and framework. The first three steps were analyzing the lab, understanding the science workflow, and optimizing the lab layout. The last step was the software, but the other three bits are just as important.
What did analyzing the lab entail?
BETTS: We looked to ensure we had an adequate supply of key things like masks, and Purell, and cleaning material. But we also wanted to make sure that we weren’t taking more than we needed from these areas away from front-line workers. We have a good partnership with a number of the hospitals in the area, and we spoke to them about our supplies. For masks, we ensured that those hospitals had supplies before we had supplies. We followed advice on cleaning of our surgical masks, which meant that we could reduce our usage to a fifth, by just doing a heat sterilization process, which extended the life of those.
Before we left the environment, we analyzed our office and our lab space. [Giguere] together with a number of scientists, literally got out and measured and taped on the floor in the spaces; what does six feet look like? We measured out each space, and in combination with facilities and our scientists, we determined what we believed was the right capacity or max capacity for each of our lab bays, and each of our tissue culture rooms, our virus production, etc.—all the rooms we have.
Although the CDC in many cases allowed us a slightly higher number, we actually went with a slightly lower number just to be comfortable and to meet our scientists’ wants, and to have them alleviate any concerns. We then went with our scientists, and talked about how we move around. A scientist doesn’t come to one place and stay there for an experiment. They move from one place to another. That’s great, but guess what? That creates contact potential.
How did you minimize contact among the scientists?
BETTS: We literally, old-school, with a map of the lab, got them to draw on where they were moving from and to, throughout their day of their experiment, in different colors for each experiment. One of the simplest things to do, but so visually powerful. Once we overlaid it with eight to 10 types of experiments, we saw some quite interesting things, which is where there were some high traffic areas, and the potential for contact.
We worked with the scientists from that, and said, “Do you know what? What if we moved the centrifuge, and rather than have them all in bay 2, why don’t we distribute them between bays 2, 4, and 6? We did this with other equipment. We did that, and then we re-mapped their trace, and we saw a significant reduction in cross pathway movement. That was a really important thing. Centrifuges are not light. These things are not simple to move, but we did this, and it led to a much better lab layout.
Pre-COVID, you’d lay your kits out from an efficiency of lab maintenance. You wouldn’t think about the traffic flow. But we had to because of COVID.
How many people now work in Obsidian’s lab?
WOTTON: We ran a beta test right at the start, a few people coming in to the lab. Now we have on a regular basis about 15 to 20 people coming in and they’re all working off a shift-based system. But it’s actually not work shifts. It’s shifts for the pieces of equipment in the lab base where we’re working from, which is a much different approach.
We were able to take our initial experience, adapt to what we learned there in a Darwinian style, and now we’ve got a significant piece of the company that works in the lab actually going back to work safely.
What this means, I think, for much larger cost is that we’ve basically beta tested this for them. So as they come back, what they’ll probably do is start out in one facility, maybe even just one lab, learn how to use it properly, and then scale it up to their other facilities or other sites, as they learn more about the system and their own working practices.
We’ve got it to work for a company of our size, which is right now 60 people. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t scale this up to 6,000 people, for example, ultimately. What was important for us was learning the lessons as we went along, and adjusting the technology as well as our own practices.
What effect did redesigning the lab have on the location of lab supplies?
BETTS: We noticed that the scientists always came to our supply cabinet in the center of the lab. A great idea from the supply point of view: It makes sense. It’s easy. You know where everything is. But they were coming out of their tissue culture rooms or their bays constantly throughout the day to get to supplies.
We knew what experiments were going to go on in each bay, in each tissue room during a day. So in essence, we delivered small trolleys into each of the tissue culture rooms and the lab bays, with the supplies we knew they needed to carry out those experiments for that day.
Now, rather than have to come out into the central space and increase the chance of contact, they’ve got everything they needed in the bay to get the work done. It’s a little bit more work for us from the facilities point of view, but it made them so much more comfortable, and so much more efficient. And by the way, in the trolley, we have another rack of miscellaneous stuff that they may need throughout the day, because as everyone knows, science doesn’t always go the way you want it, and sometimes you need something different.
What additional work does SWFT require?
BETTS: The additional effort for a lab manager is now at 5:00 a.m. every morning, they basically load up the bays with the equipment. But again, it’s a necessary element to ensure safety. And then obviously, the management of masks and our heat sterilization, these are additional things that we weren’t obviously doing in a pre-COVID world.
My lab manager gets messages on a weekly basis form the scientists, telling her how happy they are and how comfortable they feel, which makes it worthwhile. That’s why we decided to release this approach, and let people be aware of it. We want to help all the other companies that are our friends and peers in Cambridge and across the country, so we get healthcare back and working in a safe way. We feel fortunate we’re able to plan ahead, and now we want to share that.