Need a New Instrument to Innovate?

June 1, 2019

The Column

Volume 15, Issue 6
Page Number: 11–14

Columns | <b>Column: Incognito</b>

Calling all innovators (or anyone seeking to justify a new instrument purchase)!

Calling all innovators (or anyone seeking to justify a new instrument purchase)!

Innovation is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “(the use of) a new idea or method”-and I truly believe we all need to be more innovative.

As I see it, innovation takes many forms within the analytical chemistry laboratory, and, driven by some recent experiences in new instrument purchases, I wanted to explore the concept of innovation in our industry and why it is so often associated with the more negative words “risk” and “change”.

A 2015 report titled “Educate to Innovate” by the US-based National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine identified a list of common traits of true innovators as follows (1):

  • Creativity

  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo

  • Intense curiosity

  • The ability to identify serendipitous moments

  • Willingness to take risks and to fail

  • Passion

  • Knowledge of their field

  • The ability to identify good problems and ideas

  • The ability to work at the interfaces of disciplines

  • The ability to sell an idea.

A comprehensive list that appears to contain all the attributes of innovation, which if you are in a well-funded research department or institute would be relatively easy to comply with or, at least, aspire to. But what does this mean for an ambitious analytical chemist who isn’t working in a high-end (“blue-sky”) analytical environment, who is fed up with the status quo, or who may see a better way of doing things? Someone who is fed up with constantly pushing workaday equipment to its limits to squeeze every last drop of performance to meet method performance specifications. This, I postulate, would be the situation in which many innovative analysts find themselves. What needs to change to encourage innovation in these situations?

Frankly, some users of chromatography lack the creativity, curiosity, or knowledge to be the perfect innovator. But no one comes to work to do a bad job, and I’m sure many of these people will fit into the category of “dissatisfaction with the status quo”, so who are we to limit their ambition to drive change? Those who are interested in developing and implementing new ideas or methods may not be willing to take risks or fail, and if they are willing their management may not be. We are, in my experience, an intensely conservative industry. I’ve lost count of the number of times I or my colleagues have been asked, when seeking to change a method or purchase new equipment: “Who else is doing this?” or “What applications have been published which are relevant to our work?” These are sensible questions, but they do say: “We are not putting our career on the line to take this risk”. Stifling innovation? Well not really, perhaps just being pragmatic and looking ahead to the ream of justification documents that loom large on the horizon.


Let’s face it, the number of individuals who are able to tick all of the boxes in the innovator attributes are few and far between, which is why, during my recent instrument purchase exercise, I pulled together a small team and tried to undertake the process in a new way. This has thrown up some interesting insights into how to get things done. I share these with some frank insights into the barriers that I have faced (in my present or past companies) in the hope that they may be useful in your own laboratory:

1) Knowledge of what else is out there or who else has solved the problem: We are not all blessed with the time, curiosity, or the travel budget to allow us to interact with other groups, travel to conferences, or undertake extensive literature searches to give us the bigger picture insights. However, there is usually someone within a friendly vendor organization who has this “Big Picture” view. The key is to find someone who will not try to shoehorn you into one of their own vendor products and who is honest and helpful enough to be “straight” with you. I can tell you that these people do exist and can be immensely helpful. Alternatively, if you know of an industry expert in the application area of interest, they can also be very insightful, even though they may work for a different, even competitive, organization. Have the courage to reach out to them, you’ll be amazed at how many folks will freely share their insights and experiences; we love to talk about our successes and company confidentiality doesn’t always stand in the way of the higher level strategic conversations that are often required in these situations. Remember also that there may be academics willing to share insights and experience, usually unfettered by confidentiality restrictions.

2) Be clear on current limitations and project these into the future: Prospect theory (2) broadly tells us that we are naturally risk averse and that we will typically seek a less risky solution that is “good enough”, rather than go for a major gain with a greater associated risk. However, this theory also tells us that people are more likely to increase the degree of risk to avoid a loss because loss-aversion outweighs equivalent gains. Your justification should therefore include the possible downside associated with not purchasing the equipment. Will you be unable to meet future analytical requirements or regulatory requirements? Will instrument maintenance costs increase significantly? Will project outcomes be compromised? Will you fall behind competitors? This modelling of a future downside will help to reduce the risk adversity and, when combined with the upside of all the benefits and advantages that the new technology might afford, may get your justification across the line.

3) Sell the idea: First I want to tackle something I call the reality paradigm. Frankly, if the laboratory roof is leaking, if there are plans for laboratory expansion, if there are other strategic purchases aligned to high priority projects, or if there is a budget freeze, the chances of you getting something shiny and a little risky into the capital budget are low. The question you may want to ask your line management is “What are the chances of this purchase getting into the top three on the annual capital spend priority list?” If the answer puts you anywhere below fifth in line, save your efforts or seek a different opinion. If it is in the top three, go for it, if fourth or fifth in line, I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it is worth taking a punt. In terms of “selling the idea” you need to work with someone who can build and present a compelling case. This may be you, but think carefully if someone else may be better. This may include a number of folks who you don’t typically seek assistance from including purchasing personnel, health and safety representatives, or environmental sustainability staff. I bet there will be sections on the justification document that cover all of these topics so make sure to cover these topics off before you even get to the initial stages of justification. It is like developing an analytical method with the validation exercise in mind-a little upfront work always results in a more confident submission. A further tip here is that the instrument vendor will have assisted other companies to complete these justification documents-they may have killer facts or figures to really rocket fuel your submission-so don’t be afraid to ask or even get them to complete sections of the justification for you!


4) Killer creativity: This encompasses a number of tips that have worked well for me in the past, and include:

a) Remain rooted in facts: Instruments do not typically pay for themselves in less than a year, business gains are not usually stellar in the first few months after purchase, and throughput is rarely increased by a factor of 10. Don’t oversell the upside, it will lead to suspicion.

b) Use anchor pricing: This relates to an innate behavioural bias in which the perception of value is relative rather than absolute. The way to sell more $2000 watches is to put them in a tray alongside some $10,000 watches rather than a bunch of $1000 watches. Your justification review committee will typically have a mental anchor price that relates to instruments already within your laboratory, which may have been purchased several years ago, and which is almost always lower than the cost of your proposed equipment. Instead, compare your purchase to other new instruments that may be nominally capable of the same measurements, but which carry a higher price ticket.

c) Avoid fully listed quotations: Many vendors produce quotations with long lists of components within a system (down to the power cords in some instances), in the false belief that this long list of what you are getting helps to justify the big price ticket. This is absolutely incorrect. “Bundle pricing” is very successful in the motor industry, where the XL or SuperXL models have replaced the need to carefully specify if you need leather seats, xenon headlamps, satnav, high-end stereo equipment. Have the vendor bundle all of the options into a “productivity pack” if this is possible-it makes a huge difference in overcoming the emotional barrier to commit to a purchase as well as reducing the complexity of choice.

d) Sweat the return on investment (ROI) detail: When we consider ROI, we very rarely take into account all of the factors that can be affected, and this is folly. Take care to consider seemingly minor contributors, such as sample preparation time, solvent usage, associated consumables costs, cost of laboratory services (gases, heating, lighting, fume cupboard power), and any other small costs that you can think of. You would be surprised how high these costs can be on a cumulative basis, and by how much they can shorten the ROI period.

e) Make sure your demo data are bombproof: I often see colleagues entering instrument demos with absolutely the opposite mindset from what is required-combative rather than collaborative. The natural position is to send “difficult” samples for the vendor apps chemists to deal with and to adopt the mindset that they will never be able to get the results we need for these samples. This is somewhat driven by the fact that we have not been able to derive the required data ourselves and why should anyone else be any better than we are? But think carefully, who is going to want to see a justification where the data are barely good enough or has just failed to attain what we desire? Whilst we do want to ensure that the instrument is capable of delivering against our specification, submitting your worst case is not always wise. If you have three possible vendors to evaluate, drop your natural prejudice against the two whose instrument you don’t want to buy, always remain open to being surprised, and always work positively with vendors to ensure a successful outcome for yourself and your justification.

I realize that innovation doesn’t always end up with a new instrument purchase; however, it is a pretty good surrogate to the other forms of innovation that might include developing a new analytical method, changing a process, or switching from one method of analysis to another (high performance liquid chromatography [HPLC] to capillary electrophoresis [CE], for example). I have typically found that many of the principles involved with purchasing a new instrument are also applicable when persuading colleagues or management that time invested into investigating new methods or updating old ones are just the same. Remember that all innovation attributes lists are rarely held by one person, collaborating with others often produces much better outcomes, and that the more you can reduce present risk and mitigate future risk, the more successful you will be!

Go on, get innovating!


  2. D. Kahneman and A. Tversky, Econometrica47(2), 263–291 (1979).

Contact Author: Incognito
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