High-throughput research: What we’re learning from the world of drugs

by James Montgomery, News Editor, Solid-State Technology

A technique pioneered for drug discovery has successfully been adopted for materials research, to speed up the process for finding and characterizing new structures. Early adopters of this method are realizing “powerful, sustainable competitive advantages” in terms of R&D speed and efficiency, according to Isy Goldwasser, president/COO of Symyx Technologies, speaking to a ConFab audience on Wednesday about “Lessons Learned from Other Industries.”

The process of “combinatorial chemistry”, which screens thousands of compounds for specific properties, has been used for years in drug discovery, but only in the past decade have other industries including materials and electronics looked to it to help them with R&D. Essentially, this method can help speed up the process for finding and characterizing new structures — e.g. which ones have specific magnetic, conducting, or optical properties — and increase materials discovery rate by factors of 1000 or more, Goldwasser explained.

Well-defined R&D projects go through three phases, he explained: synthesis, testing, and informatics, resulting in a step-change R&D execution (i.e., more commercial outcomes in significantly less time). High-throughput research, mainly a systems problem (only 25% of this method involves hardware), requires an informatics-driven culture and mindset, with sustained investment and specialization, he noted. In every case where the method has been applied, Symyx was told it was impossible to break R&D down into small-scale experiments and parallelize them. But it has always proved feasible.

R&D execution value drivers include increasing experimental throughput (by 10x-100x), reducing cost/experiment, integrating/automating complete R&D tasks and procedures, and enabling enterprise-wide access and reutilization of scientific information. Inputs must be intelligently selected, and analysis and evaluation must also be expertly structured.

This high-throughput research methodology has been applied in numerous areas by Symyx and partners, including workflows for process optimization, electrochemistry, gas phase heterogeneous catalysis, and pigments, Goldwasser showed. He also laid out a map for enterprise-wide efforts to deliver step-change R&D execution, including integrating, linking, and visualizing R&D data from the lab to plants, and forming solid alliance structures (e.g., Symyx with Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil) with collaborative, strategic R&D programs that transfer best practices and know-how. Small incremental R&D projects are done rapidly in parallel with data analysis to select the most promising candidates. The key is process sequence integration rather than material science, so that thousands of small-scale experiments can be performed quickly and at low cost/experiment.

Goldwasser described several case studies highlighting four areas of improvement: new product development, controlling product costs, building volume with existing yield assets, and improving chemical processes by analyzing existing feedstocks. He cited work with Dow to squeeze higher value products from existing operations, which resulted in the commercial launch of a new product family of plastomers and elastomers. The two firms also paired to push through what he termed a “rapid” R&D cycle for a new line of specialty olefin copolymers.

Providing more specific numbers to back the case for a high-throughput (HTR) R&D model, Goldwasser cited optimization of a portfolio of 100 formulation products (4-6 components per formulation), where HTR shortened the project length from an “impractical” three years to six months, and generated 1%/year reduction of the total portfolio’s $300M cost of goods sold.

Finally, targeting a commodity chemical process, Goldwasser noted that a partner took 10 years to see just incremental improvements in raising yields for a core product, without reaching commercial performance targets — but incorporating HTR by working with Symyx met technical targets after hundreds of thousands of experiments, and achieved more progress in the first two years than in previous 15 years. — J.M.


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