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July 19, 2021updated 21 Jul 2021 6:51am

Building a new technical team in six months: Abcam’s CTO on rapid digital transformation

Abcam helps scientists pioneer new drugs but its technical infrastructure was showing its age. CTO Dan Phelps tells Tech Monitor about the company's rapid digital transformation.

By Matthew Gooding

When Abcam founder Jonathan Milner started the company in 1998, the story goes, he delivered antibodies to customers in Cambridge’s many laboratories on a bike with an ice bucket strapped to the back. Twenty-three years later, Abcam no longer offers pedal-powered deliveries: today, it supplies antibodies, proteins and other cells to more than 750,000 scientists around the world working on new drugs.

It also provides clients with a data-driven platform with which to develop custom antibodies for use in research. This platform has helped the company grow to employ 1,600 people and reach a market cap of £3bn. But, until a rapid digital transformation led by an all-new technology team, Abcam found that its systems were starting to creak behind the scenes. Dan Phelps, the company’s chief technology officer and one of the new recruits, told Tech Monitor how they did it.

abcam digital transformation

To help ‘reimagine its customer touchpoints’, life science materials provider Abcam set up a new digital hub in Amsterdam. (Photo courtesy of Abcam)

Abcam CTO on the need for digital transformation in life science

Milner and his co-founders started Abcam after watching the rise of Amazon, at the time still a fast-growing online book seller. They sought to create a similar e-commerce platform for scientists. The company’s initial offering was a search engine that allowed researchers to find and purchase antibodies from 500 different manufacturers, with a database listing their properties.

A company built around technology that was provisioned in the 1990s is certain to be encumbered with legacy systems. “The business was effectively run on two monolithic applications,” explains Abcam CTO Phelps, who joined the company a year ago and has a background in financial services and fintech. “There was the whole front end, our e-commerce site, which was one big block. And then everything else in the business was running on in-house ERP. The challenge for us was how to convert a traditional IT department to a digital team and then how do we evangelise digital in the rest of the business.”

Abcam CTO Phelps says that while the company, and the life science sector as a whole, have embraced data science, using data models to predict which types of cells show promise for R&D and manufacturing, it has “not been ahead of the curve” when it comes other areas of technology. “[Life science] is similar to financial services in that respect,” he says. “We’ve had some amazing results using data, but the rest of our technology estate and the way we interact with customers hasn’t changed much.”

As such, the company’s digital transformation has been “not just about digitising within Abcam but about how we can reimagine our customer touchpoints,” Phelps says. “That’s how we can go from being an e-commerce retailer of these products into an organisation that can help scientists to deliver their research faster,” he says.

Building a new technical team at speed

The challenge for Phelps and Juan Carlo Sacristan, the company’s recently appointed CIO, was to build a team capable of delivering a modern customer experience. The well-documented digital skills shortage means those with digital expertise are in high demand.

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Working with consultancy 101 Ways, Phelps says Abcam took a two-pronged approach to solving the issue. “We know the market’s hard, so we used a combination of educating and training our existing team, and supplementing it with new recruits from new locations,” he says. “It wasn’t just a case of ‘this piece of work will take 50 days so we need three extra developers’, the whole point was to bring people in who could accelerate our technology adoption and change our way of working.”

Within six months Abcam has grown its small team of IT support staff to a digital division of more than 160 people (“we have a whole team ‘town hall’ every two weeks and it feels like we’re introducing new people at every meeting”, Phelps says) based in the UK, as well as on the east and west coasts of the US, in China, and in Holland, where the company’s new digital hub has opened.

Being a digital team, everything we do is driven by data. We wanted to go beyond the usual ‘go on LinkedIn and find out which cities have the particular skills we’re looking for’.

Establishing this digital hub as a focal point for the team was central to the transformation programme. Abcam chose to locate it in Amsterdam following an extensive review of destinations around the world. “Being a digital team, everything we do is driven by data,” he says. “We wanted to go beyond the usual ‘go on LinkedIn and find out which cities have the particular skills we’re looking for’.”

In its search for a suitable location, the company’s talent acquisition team used a range of data sources, looking at strength of innovation ecosystems in locations around the world, as well as existing life-science clusters and available talent, before settling on Amsterdam. “It’s great for digital and creativity and UX design and things like that, but also really good for life science,” Phelps says. “There’s no point just thinking in terms of ‘we need 100 developers with Java experience’ because we’re building a product team, so you need all the cross-functional people you need in a product team in one location.”

Onboarding so many new staff in a short space of time can be difficult, but Phelps says the Covid-19 pandemic had a silver lining in that regard. “The whole UK team has been working remotely for more than a year, so we have all the tooling in place to be able to do that,” he says. “We have six ‘squads’ rebuilding our platforms, and some of them are in one location and others are split between different places. Is that ideal? Probably not, because you’re not able to all get round a whiteboard together, but through digital tools, we’ve been able to mitigate that as much as we can.”

The outcome of digital transformation at Abcam

Abcam’s new team has moved the company’s digital systems onto a new distributed architecture, Phelps explains. “This means we’ve been able to create micro front-ends for all the different parts of the web experience,” he says. “We’ve already released this in a couple of different countries, and we’re aiming for full roll-out before the end of the year.”

For internal processes, an API layer has been created with more than 50 APIs that allow easy integration of the company’s different systems. Eager to ensure its technology platform evolves with the times, Phelps says his team has also been trying out serverless technologies. “A lot of businesses are going down the microservices approach to digital transformation, and when I stepped in a year ago I felt it was a good direction for us, but I also wanted to look beyond that,” he says. “So six months ago we started introducing serverless systems into our IT estate using AWS Lambda (Amazon’s serverless computing platform).”

The company has also been using open-source Kafka Streams, which can process and analyse data before sending it on to other systems. “We know this is going to be the bedrock of integrating our data platforms of the future, because the biggest change we see coming in life science is in terms of the volume of data we’re creating and enriching,” Phelps explains.

The biggest change we see coming in life science is in terms of the volume of data we’re creating and enriching.

Freeing up this data means it hasn’t been difficult to convince the wider Abcam team of the merits of digital transformation. “I can walk into a meeting room and they’ll be ten people with science PhDs whose whole lives have been about data,” Phelps says. “We’ve already seen huge bottom-line gains from data science, and innovation gains as well, which means we don’t have to convince people to further invest in that.”

For the technical team, the company’s role in the development of new therapies makes for a compelling sell, Abcam CTO Phelps adds. “It’s nice to get up in the morning and know you’re playing a part in treating Covid-19 or cancer,” he says. “We’re in an enviable position because the company’s mission has a tangible impact on humanity, and I think that’s really helped us build our team.”

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