What is a LIMS, and How Do I Know if I Need One?

June 20, 2024

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What is a LIMS?

At first, a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) sounds like something that would be useful in any lab. Isn't the purpose of a lab to produce information, and shouldn’t that information be properly managed? The reality isn't quite so simple, however. Traditional LIMS were developed for routine sample testing and are commonly used in quality control (QC) laboratories. Sample management is the core purpose of these systems and workflows are designed to ensure traceability of samples and test results, particularly in regulated environments.

The emphasis on 'routine sample testing' means LIMS were historically not well suited for research and early development activities because they lacked the flexibility to record experimental narratives. On the other end of the spectrum, electronic lab notebook (ELN) systems were designed to replace paper notebooks, and what could be more flexible than a blank piece of paper? But the downside of flexibility is limited searchability and comparability. For example, if one researcher describes a product as 'protein α' and another writes 'protein alpha' they may not show up in the same report which could result in poor decisions based on incomplete data and unnecessary rework.

The Evolving Landscape of LIMS and ELN

So, while it used to be generally acknowledged that you need an ELN for research & development and a LIMS for QC labs, a growing number of software vendors have recognized that this dichotomy between rigid/structured and flexible/unstructured systems doesn’t meet the needs of modern biopharmaceutical development. Even the earliest stages of research and discovery can benefit from consistent metadata and structured data capture to improve the interoperability and reusability of the data later. And, unless you’re working entirely with digital datasets then some level of sample and inventory management is useful too. As a result, the lines between ELN and LIMS have become increasingly blurred and what used to be essentially commodity software products are now much more diversified.

Functional Variability in LIMS: A Real-Life Example

Here is an example comparison of 3 different 'LIMS' that illustrates how functionality can vary not just between vendors, but even between implementations of the same system at different customers:

In this matrix capabilities are grouped by type and 'No' means the vendor doesn’t meet customer requirements, 'Partial' means the vendor meets some but not all requirements, and 'Yes' means the vendor meets most of the requirements 'out of the box', i.e. with minimal configuration effort. The best vendor for each customer depends on the relative priority of the different requirements and the degree to which each vendor supports them. For example, Customer 2 has a requirement for molecular biology tools which only one vendor provides and if this is a high priority, it might rule out the other options.

Determining the Need for a LIMS

Now let's go back to the second and most important part of the original question: how do I know if I need a LIMS? The best way to know which system is right for your business is to start with a clear understanding of your current digital landscape, workflows, and business priorities. No IT system works in a vacuum and how well a new system fits into your existing digital landscape can be a critical success factor. Next, the workflows - are there opportunities to harmonize and simplify business processes even before a new system is implemented? And do users need to manually export and import data between systems, or could there be a better way to transfer data? Most importantly, what are the business priorities that are driving the need for investment?

Take a Data-Centric Approach to System Selection

At ProPharma, we advocate a data-centric rather than application-centric approach. To advance science in the most productive way possible, we need to think of data as currency. Yet stranded data and fragmented business processes are a known problem in the biopharma industry, and trying to use data effectively is like trying to pay for dinner at your local pizza shop with a handful of pesos, lira, and kopecks. Each new system that becomes a part of the digital landscape provides an opportunity to improve data quality and optimize downstream activities, but only when data flows are considered with the importance they deserve.

Get a Strategic Assessment and Digital Blueprint

No matter where you are in your digital journey, whether you’re just getting started and don’t have any physical labs yet, or your business is well established and you’re looking to replace an existing system, our recommendation is the same: Always start with an assessment that confirms business requirements and ensures the system selected is fit for purpose and aligns with your long-term strategy. Our Digital Blueprint service is designed to reduce the time required by subject matter experts and leverages our extensive experience delivering similar projects. Through a series of structured stakeholder interviews and workshops we define your current level of digital maturity, a digital vision aligned with your business goals, and a detailed roadmap to achieve that vision. The deliverables and the time required for the assessment will depend on the situation but ensuring that everyone’s needs and priorities are understood is critical to the success of any technology selection project.

Want to learn more? Discover how ProPharma helped a Munich-based biotech select a data management platform to support the development of novel antibody-based therapeutics.

If you need help selecting the right LIMS for your lab, contact us today for expert guidance and support.


Claire Hill

Claire Hill

Business Consultant

Dana Vanderwall

Dana Vanderwall

Senior Director, Digital Transformation


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