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COVID and the EU Life Science Instrumentation Market

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

OK, so you’ve read lots of articles on the effects of COVID-19 on this or that business. The disaster it has caused for the hospitality sector is clear and as is the fact that there have been major beneficiaries, mainly in the tech sector i.e. the Zoom video conferencing platform. I could go on but I won’t. You can get this stuff from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The FT, etc., etc. and, frankly, they have better writers!

What I can share with you is some very specific insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected life science academic researchers in Europe and the processes by which they make purchases and by which manufacturers sell to these customers.

So let’s review the now infamous year of 2020. Covid hit Europe in February and very quickly Universities in central European countries started to close and send their students and researchers home. Indeed, universities were the early adopters of lockdowns and it took governments many crucial weeks to catch up. Most researchers went home and focused on paper and grant writing. A handful of university laboratories remained open. These were mainly either labs doing some type of Covid related work or labs that had crucial, time-dependent, work often involving animal or cell colonies that had taken years to develop. This situation remained unchanged during the first wave, specifically, from late February to June.

Over the summer months we saw a return to lab work in universities across Europe. However, the pace of purchasing remained somewhat behind the pace of re-opening. Why was this? We, at Red Box Direct, pondered this and over time it became clear that even after re-opening, labs had generally reduced the pace of their work. Don’t get me wrong on this. I don’t believe anyone was getting lazy. In fact, researchers worked incredibly hard during this period. However, two big things had changed. Firstly, and this is common with almost all industries, new safety protocols and related record keeping requirements made it more challenging to work in close proximity. Of course, we all know that lab space in universities is precious and working in close proximity has, heretofore, been the norm.

Secondly, teaching obligations changed. Pretty much all academic researchers in Europe have significant teaching obligations. Most will be involved with some laboratory practical classes for undergraduates. Unlike lectures, these classes couldn't be moved online and the solution in almost all institutions has been to repeat practical labs with small subsets (or pods) of students, many times. In many places the pod size is of the order of fifteen students. So, if there are 150 undergrads taking a science module then specific laboratory classes are being repeated 10 times! Yep, this has created a tsunami of extra work for academics and laboratory technicians.

So that is what is happening within institutions. What else is affecting the ability of manufacturers to sell and support their customers. Well on the selling front there are two obvious and huge changes.

The first one is the cessation of physical trade shows and with them the exhibitions that we all attended regularly. What can I say about this? It’s simple. They’re gone and they don’t look likely to be coming back anytime soon. When it comes to selling to scientists, trade shows have been in a mild decline for almost two decades. I could write a long post on this subject alone (and maybe I will someday!) but for the moment it is sufficient to say that COVID has accelerated their decline in much the same way as it has accelerated the decline of high-street retail.

The second change is the continued difficulty with both pre-sale (presentations, demos, etc.) and installation visits to customers at universities. While most European institutions are fully open again and all research labs are back at work, these same institutions are fearful of outbreaks that might affect the already limited on-site teaching they are currently doing. In most cases, universities have a blanket ban on visitors to laboratories on campus and this policy does not look like changing anytime soon.

So that’s where we are now. Trade shows are gone and research laboratories have re-opened but are operating at a reduced throughput and, for the most part, are not allowed to have visitors.

Enough of the bad news. Actually, there are strong reasons to be positive about both the near and medium term. In the last two months we have seen a return to normal levels of activity i.e. purchasing by scientists. It seems that during the summer months, academics and especially the senior ones, were roped into the important planning of how to reopen and operate their institutions under the new COVID restrictions as mandated by governments across Europe. This was a massive distraction but it is done and now these processes and systems are up and running. So most of these people have been able to resume their normal levels of research activity.

Another reason to be positive is a prediction that I will make now. I believe that funding to the sciences will increase in the coming 12 to 24 months. Why would I make such a bold prediction? Well two reasons, history and human nature. By history I mean the fact that, in every major economic crisis over the last three decades, governments across Europe and America have increased funding to science. They introduce money at the top of the economic pyramid and it then churns round and round until it gets to “Joe the plumber”. Pumping money into R&D activities also helps keep each country's competitive edge. Absent, any other data, I simply expect history (and economic policy) to repeat itself.

But what of my reference to human nature? Well this is more of a personal hunch and here is how it goes. Since the early to mid nineties, the big money has gone into software. The most valuable companies in the world are not those that help us live longer or excite our palates with fantastic new gastronomic fancies. They are companies whose core raison d'etre is to make the average person spend more time on their platforms, and then to monetize that. For over two decades the smartest programmers in the World (and I mean hundreds of thousands of them) have been sucked up by corporations who pay them to use their fantastically impressive brain power to manipulate the average person into spending more and more minutes entranced with their platforms or, in other words, staring at their advertising content. So my bold prediction is simply that COVID-19 is going to remind people that science can and should be used to make a meaningful difference in their lives.

Okay, enough of predictions. What can and should we be doing now to ensure that we grow through 2021? I am going to make this simple. For most life science research equipment manufacturers and their sales channels there are three things that should be (and should already have been) done:

  1. Pivot to marketing to replace trade shows.

Trade shows are dead, at least for the next year. So if that was one of the main sources of new leads then it needs to be replaced. There is only one other and obvious source of lead generation and that is digital marketing. I would love to say more about the many things that the small phrase “digital marketing” encompasses but it is too broad to cover in this post. Sufficeth to say that every company needs to have a comprehensive digital marketing plan covering and inter-relating many strands and then we need to implement it, measure it, iterate it based on the measurables and finally repeat these steps again, again and again.

  1. Remote demonstrations.

For products that need detailed demonstrations then replacing the traditional site visit is a must but an amateurish Zoom call with a golf-ball camera manually pointed at bits of equipment and then screen sharing to illustrate related software just won’t cut it. You need to do more. Here at Red Box Direct, we have taken some of the money we would have invested in trade shows this year and turned one of our rooms into a fully functional demonstration studio with multiple cameras, professional lighting, greenscreen and real time software that allows us to appear on the screen alongside software and various camera angles to give remote customers the fullest possible experience of the products we demonstrate. The really good news is we are already seeing results. It works and customers tell us they really appreciate that we have gone the extra mile to give them the best possible experience.

  1. Remote Installations.

How you do this will vary a lot depending on your product. Indeed, many products didn’t need on-site installation before COVID and these products won’t need remote installation now but if your product does then you need to find tools that simplify the remote experience. One of my favorites is the Pilot addition to TeamViewer. This tool allows you to use augmented reality via the end-users smartphone to show how things are assembled. You can have a user point at the back of an instrument and then draw a pointer to the connector you want them to connect to. They can then go to a box of cables and you and do the same thing. What is really cool about TeamViewer Pilot is that when the user returns to the instrument and even if they look at it from another angle your virtual marks and pointer will still appear in the right place. It certainly eases assembly and their remote software control and assistance tools do the same with computer configuration.

The future of scientific research is bright and, I believe, that as a direct result of COVID it will get brighter. The same is also true for manufacturers and their agents selling into this sector. As long as we embrace change and do everything we can to support our customers then they will continue to reward us with their business and maybe, just maybe, we will all contribute to making this world a better place.

Rory Geoghegan

November 19th, 2020

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