IDBS BlogCan today’s ELNs support tomorrow’s labs?

IDBS Blog | 29th February 2024

Can today’s ELNs support tomorrow’s labs?

Can today’s ELNs support tomorrow’s labs?

By Stuart Ward, Head of Platform Strategy, IDBS

The global electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) market is estimated to grow from $626 million in 2022 to $935 million by 2030.1 This growth is being attributed to increased pharma competition, web- and cloud-based ELN offerings, their benefits and the evolution of the technology. But have the latter reached a stalemate?

Don’t be misled. ELNs are still relevant to the pharma lab, speeding up drug delivery, ensuring good data management, improving data security, supporting audits and enhancing collaboration and communication. However, they can be limited when they stand alone. As Matt Clifford, Director of Research and Innovation Strategy at IDBS, writes in Drug Discovery World, if stand-alone ELNs “don’t form part of a more comprehensive data strategy and ecosystem they can also get in the way.”

What does ELN stand for?

To understand how an ELN can become part of an integrated data strategy, we must first understand what an electronic lab notebook is. In simple terms, an ELN is meant to replace cumbersome and tedious paper notebooks and Excel spreadsheets, both of which are prone to lack of reproducibility and human error. ELNs meet the needs of capturing unstructured, such as disjoined, disparate data, that would otherwise be stored in a variety of locations. The ELN is a centralized platform for protocols, observations, notes and other data to be entered and stored.

Despite these benefits, some lab managers are resistant to ELNs because they are hesitant about digitizing data, don’t believe they have the time to implement a system, don’t want to disrupt current manual routines and are concerned about data security. In fact, 60% of scientists are using paper or Excel spreadsheets at some point in their process to manage process data.2 According to research shared by Mundo da computação científica, only 20% of non-ELN users feel comfortable implementing a completely electronic environment for the protection of their intellectual property.3

That said, upgraded and automated systems are indeed capturing scientists’ attention, with 20% of commercial life sciences organizations using, implementing or in the process of finalizing an ELN purchase. 83% have some interest in ELNs; 43% of those are seriously considering a purchase, defining requirements or evaluating systems.3

But ELNs are not enough; people want more, to be able to achieve true digital transformation. Survey results from Deloitte suggest that organizations are prioritizing investments in the cloud (80%) and AI (76%) for drug development in aid of this.4

Alternatives to basic ELNs

Generic electronic lab notebooks provide a secure repository to document research, share ideas and ensure 21 CFR Part 11 compliance. Unstructured data within the electronic lab notebook is not easy to search or analyze, limiting the production of standardized reporting and meaningful data analytics. Laboratory workflows cannot be managed and integration with other common laboratory software is limited, leading to potential isolation from other laboratory technologies and siloed data. For example, a lack of sample-related data means R&D organizations are forced to use another system, such as a laboratory information management system (LIMS), which, in turn, decreases the visibility of end-to-end workflows, limiting insights that can be used to optimize processes and accelerate time-to-market.

One alternative was to converge the experiment-centric ELN and sample-centric LIMS into a hybrid solution called a laboratory execution system (LES). This specialized variant of an ELN enforces procedural execution of standard operating procedures or work instructions. However, the LES can have limited application in environments where procedural development is ongoing, and flexibility is required.

Innovative companies want to go further than this. They are willing to embrace solutions that include digital workflows designed to create a persistent, dynamic data backbone throughout the BioPharma lifecycle. This provides a solid foundation for analytics, accelerated time-to-insight and future digital twin and in silico modeling.

One example is IDBS Polar, a BioPharma Lifecycle Management (BPLM) platform for data capture, process execution, advanced analysis, data visualization and reporting across the drug development lifecycle. The combination of experimental- and model-based outcomes eliminates manual processes and makes digital workflows more efficient and seamless.

Empowering scientists with more features

Just as ELNs evolve, so too do ELN vendors. At one time, there were just a handful of ELN vendors; today there are dozens of suppliers developing specialized application modules and/or integrating with other technology to meet user needs, clearly going above the original expectations from ELNs just a few years ago. Scientists need to capture structured data, aligned to catalogs and data models to be able to reliably trust and get value from their data. ELN vendors are entering into collaborative partnerships with other technology providers and lab equipment manufacturers to integrate ELNs with complementary solutions and enhance interoperability.5 For example, integrating ELNs with laboratory information management systems (LIMS) and scientific data management (SDMS) is indeed gaining traction because of the promises of seamless data transfer, enhanced workflow efficiency and improved data traceability.5

Clifford notes that when organizations determine their data management strategy, there is significant value in thinking short and long-term, and how “it is important to have a clear long-term goal for how data will be used—preferably one that centers around the concrete data analysis needs that will drive the business forward”6.

IDBS has recognized this need in how data must be handled and managed across the product and process lifecycle, in the here and now, and in the long term. Within the cloud-native platform, IDBS offers laboratory and biological inventory management, test requesting functionality and collaboration capabilities, in addition to the underlying unstructured and structured experimental data capture. On top of this, IDBS excels in two key areas. First, offering a clear set of integration points and APIs to communicate with third-party instruments and applications. Second, embedding AI/ML and visual analytics within a single platform. Together, these eliminate time-consuming and error-prone manual alignment of data sets, enhance data analysis capabilities, and ultimately drive faster, informed decision-making.

Opportunities to harness data

The ELNs of years past are no longer enough and industry needs more sophisticated tools. The introduction of less generic and more “specific” ELNs must feature integrated tools to aid researchers, such as searchable reaction databases, chemical synthesis planning and integrated chemical inventory.3

Clifford says that the basic ELN is ultimately a data collection tool and not a research system or a data management strategy. More advanced solutions have tangible advantages over paper notebooks and Excel spreadsheets for assured data integrity. He points out that while there will always be a place for ELNs in the scientific lab, those without access to well-structured data will fall behind. “The amount of data that we can now collect and analyze from each experiment is staggering. We have immense opportunities to develop better target understanding and enable the discovery of new and more effective drugs—but only if we can harness that data.”6


If you liked this blog post, read more from Stuart Ward.

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About the author

Stuart ward, Head of Platform Strategy, IDBSStuart is the Director of Platform and Solutions and is responsible for ensuring that IDBS products meet the needs of customers. He has grown the IDBS Platform team, which includes Product Owners, User Experience Designers and Technical Authors, so that it can provide the necessary business and domain experience required to create software and solutions to enable BioPharma and other industries achieve faster scientific breakthroughs. In addition, he led the creation and launch of The E-WorkBook GxP Cloud, which was IDBS’ first SaaS product for use in regulated (21 CFR Part 11, GxP) environments.
Before starting this role in January 2014, he was Product Manager for E-WorkBook for four years and worked in IDBS Global Professional Services for five years, responsible for deploying IDBS’ products both from a technical and project management perspective.
Prior to working at IDBS, Stuart completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the NIH and then worked for Ionix Pharmaceuticals. He obtained his PhD in Pharmacology from the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (University of London).




  1. Yahoo Finance. (2023). Global Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs) Strategic Business Report 2023: Myriad Advantages of ELNs Promote Use of Electronic Lab Notebooks. Retrieved from []
  2. IDBS. (n.d.). IDBS Polar. Retrieved from []
  3. Scientific Computing World. (n.d.). The State of the ELN Market. Retrieved from []
  4. Deloitte. (n.d.). Biopharma digital transformation. Retrieved from []
  5. MarketWide Research Report. (n.d.). Electronic Lab Notebook Market Analysis 2024-2032. Retrieved from []
  6. Clifford, M. (2023, August 23). You think you need an ELN… but are you asking the right questions? Drug Discovery World. Retrieved from []
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