Over the last couple of years, chemistry and science has silently been at the heart of many major news stories, including last year’s horse meat scandal that rocked supermarket chain Tesco and others, drug testing in sport and significant crime investigations. Formerly a state-owned organisation, LGC, which carried out the horse meat tests, has undergone huge growth during the time Gideon Kay has been CIO.
LGC was established way back in 1842 by the government when it realised it needed scientific evidence to measure the alcohol proof levels of beverages being imported into the UK so, as tax men like to do, it could ensure it was claiming its full share of duty. It was one of the last organisations to be privatised during the previous Conservative administration in 1996. The last 12 years have seen LGC operate under the stewardship of venture capital groups, which has enabled the organisation to grow like a culture in a Petri dish. LGC was 150 scientists in a laboratory in Lambeth, London in 1996; today it is an organisation with 200 operations around the globe and a turnover of £200m.
The business has five divisions that are worth explaining as they detail the level of complexity that CIO Kay has to operate with, which covers the entire spectrum of scientific analysis and business operations.
Forensics is one of the most publicly exciting parts of the organisation, given the interest in television series like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. LGC has a ballistics lab in the North East and has contracts with a large number of the UK’s police forces, which means crime scene evidence bags regularly arrive at LGC’s labs for a “full range of analysis”.
“We are the largest provider of forensic science services in the world. The only thing we don’t do is fingerprint recognition.
But we do cold case work and the Stephen Lawrence trial had witnesses from LGC, as did David Kelly,” Kay says of the government scientist that took his life following the scandal surrounding Labour’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
The health sciences division is also a major service provider operation, delivering services to the pharmaceutical industry who outsource parts of the discovery process to LGC bio-analysis teams. LGC’s state owned past is far from severed as well – as its initials suggest, it remains the government’s chemist by law.
“We manage part of the Department of Health’s research budget that puts sponsorship out into industry, so we use our platforms to review and monitor programmes,” he says.
Standards, genomics, health sciences, science and technology, and forensics make up the core business pillars of LGC. In the sporting arena, LGC carries out drug testing in horse and greyhound racing across various markets globally, but it also tests humans for drug use and carries out random tests for clients, including the Armed Forces.
“Our newest business is genomics a deep area of DNA testing and we have specialist machines that sequence DNA for companies that want to know the yields of a crop in one place, for example, and why the yield is different in another,” Kay explains.
Another important business is standards, which involves the analytical testing of everything from food and drink to metals, oils and soil. LGC also provides the reference materials that other scientific organisation need to complete their own testing.
“It is applied science in a commercial world. For example, we did the testing on sweets that were getting stuck in children’s throats and found the chemical that caused that. “We like to say that regulation is our friend, as emerging markets will want to export, but as exporters they need our services,” Kay says.
“All our labs have high-end instruments which are connected to a laboratory workflow management system, which has been my main focus. We barcode scan all items as they come into LGC, as we need to maintain a chain throughout the organisation, and we also have to log how much time we spend on everything. That chain could be a chain of evidence for a forensic account, so you do not want to have evidence in a lab notebook, then have to add the information gathered from a test onto a PC, because there is a margin of error creeping in.
“With the networked instruments we have integrated, there is a solid chain that can be viewed from devices and PCs,” Kay explains of the strategy he has been delivering to automate and improve information management from microscope to court room or the final manufacturing plant for a breakthrough crop or drug.
“We have acquired a lot of automation IT. Instrument integration is part and parcel of our labs, especially as everything we do has to be accredited,” he says, and with DNA sequencing being one of the processes LGC offers the business world, big data is not a new phenomenon to this CIO.
On top of integrating the laboratory systems, Kay and his team have been integrating the IFS enterprise resource planning (ERP) system across the business. “ERP is now in every part of the business. When we have acquired labs businesses they have each had their own lab platform that suits their area of research and business,” he says of the IT rationalisation he has been driving since our last interview (see CIO, October 2011). During that time LGC has continued to expand through acquisitions, adding to Kay’s workload.
“And like any service firm, we have SLAs,” he says of the need for this rationalisation to enable LGC to meet its customer’s needs and remain a sustainable business.
“The ERP programme was in flight when I joined, so I had to land that and then start on the £4m labs management system,” he says. Once the ERP was completed, Kay and his team carried out a thorough self-analysis of the ERP implementation to discover what went well and what did not to ensure they were aware of areas they could improve on before they began the labs management system implementation.
“With ERP you upset the back office, but for us the labs management system is customer facing in effect,” he says of the need to ensure the implementation was as seamless as possible. Implementation was completed in January 2013.
Alongside these two major projects Kay has been “professionalising” the IT operation at LGC, which meant replacing two email systems with Microsoft Exchange and Outlook collaboration tools, establishing online conferencing and virtualising large parts of the IT estate.
LGC has made six acquisitions during the time Kay’s team have been modernising the IT estate.
“We now have three sites and 100 employees in America and 20 people in China and South America, so that has driven a lot of change,” he says of the need to be flexible.
“The programmes are about on-boarding the acquisition companies as effectively as possible.” Helping that has been a move to Salesforce for CRM at LGC. Kay currently has 150 users and expects it to grow to 250. His other main platforms are Business Objects and Sharepoint. “We still have a lot to do with Business Objects, our users are data hungry so we can do more for the development of the business,” he says.
“There is a lot going on. A lot of this is about the potential and growth of the business and its effectiveness. The labs management and ERP are connected for billing, for example,” he says.
“SaaS helps me a lot as our challenges are international as we are a very merger and acquisition-driven business that acquires owner-manager businesses from scientific entrepreneurs. As an organisation, we need to bring them into a business, but not suffocate them,” he says.
Kay sees great potential for a global organisation like his to use cloud computing, but with the vast majority of its information commercially sensitive, data security is a major business issue. Kay is piloting cloud-based development and continuity environments to get the most from the technology and enable the organisation to understand what it can gain from the cloud.
“I want to be more plug and play and my boss is very good at looking at the long term,” he says of the technology freedom his team has.
Kay has a team of 65 globally and prefers to bring in contractors for these major projects when the team needs to flex up in size. The IT budget is circa four per cent of turnover at LGC.
Kay is at the end of his first three-year strategy for LGC and expects data and CRM to play a big part in his plans going into the next strategic phase. “I was the first permanent CIO,” he says of the role he’s had since late 2010.
Before heading to the LGC headquarters in Teddington, Kay was a transformation director with construction and infrastructure services firm Balfour Beatty. “At Balfour Beatty the role was about the back-office IT. Here it is data driven and about processes and productivity,” he says. Kay is also responsible for PR and marketing efforts at LGC, and works closely with the HR director on the need for the organisation to attract and retain talent, a key issue for a scientific organisation.
“Thirty per cent of our employees have PHDs and there is a challenge in retaining them and how my team can support HR in retention,” he says. Kay has begun introducing bring your own device policies to benefit the workforce.
When the current government closed the police forensics service there was criticism that the UK would fall behind in this science, but Kay argues that his organisation has more than filled the void and remains at the forefront.
One such innovation is a DNA testing kit that provides the police with an ability to swab-test a crime scene and instantly tell if there is DNA present and whether it is male or female. Each box contains scientific materials, hardware and software.
“It is useful for getting information in 45 minutes rather than a few days. Now police can just send high-quality swabs to the lab, so for them it improves the time of analysis,” he says, which also reduces policing costs as fewer negative tests will be billed to a force.
There is little doubt too that, in selecting their scientific partner, police forces will show loyalty to an organisation that has set out to understand their needs and created a solution that enables the force to drive down its costs, especially at a time of financial crisis. Just as CIOs tell this title they look for partnerships with IT vendors that try and understand their business pressures, LGC has understood that continued loyal business is of more value than sticking with a revenue model that perhaps no longer rings true in 2014.
Innovating and getting involved in the business opportunities that technology offers clearly excite Kay and, with two major projects that have given LGC a secure platform, there is a wealth of opportunities ahead.
Away from the CIO role, Kay has a young family, but still finds time for photography and is training for triathlon competitions.