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Mushrooms and Innovation

Thu, 07/31/2003 - 8:00pm
Randy C. Hice

Mushrooms and Innovation

The Last Vendor Standing Wins

Randy C. Hice

The devilish fungus was eluding me during the waning hours of daylight in a deep forest in the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan. For six hours of work, I had a small brown lunch bag two-thirds full of Morel mushrooms. With aching back and weary retinas, I plowed southward towards my home base in Kalamazoo. Then I saw it. Beside the road, a 'Morels for Sale' sign at a farm stand.,p>'Fantastic', I thought, 'I can buy a few pounds and tell everyone tall tales of mycological sleuthing. Then, kabang, I saw the price, $14 a pound! Thieves! Lobster could be had for considerably less, and didn't permeate the house with a rotten wood smell when cooked (although the tiny screams are disconcerting).p>Okay, 'fungus is fungus' I thought to myself, and my bachelor days reminded me just how easily such organisms grow, albeit in the shower. But I wondered why this unexpected fit of genius hadn't occurred to one of the wonks at Michigan State, home to one of the country's best mycology programs. Just lazy, I speculated. Morels are sought by chefs all over the world, and dishes containing them are obscenely expensive. So I sought out to make a name as the Morel Master. I started doing research, whilst daydreaming on color schemes for the Countach I would buy after cranking out my first billion bulbous fungi.p>Then the reality of my plight set in. Yes, Morels could be grown artificially, but it was a 25-step process, and none of them trivial. The yield was considerably less than a billion ... more like four to six mushrooms. Seems the mycelium structure of the Morel requires a bit of real estate, and perfect conditions. I guess that's why they can only be found for a few weeks in May in Michigan. To develop a Morel ranch, I would need to unearth Ben Cartwright himself, cheat him out of the Ponderosa, and be prepared to beat the daylights out of Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe when they came to bitterly avenge my pillaging.p>These were long odds at best, and my mood darkened like a Michigan tornado sky.p>It's funny how perspective changes when you have the facts.p>That's the way I feel when I look at what's happening in the field of LIMS design. For some reason, Paula Cole's Where Have All the Cowboys Gone comes to mind. Where is the innovation? Where are the new ideas? Where are the customers?p>Well folks, the last question isn't mine, it comes from some of the vendors. Forgive one more entertainment industry reference, but I like the line: "Build it, and they will come." p>This, of course, comes from the movie Field of Dreams but holds true today when considering LIMS design. Never has the industry been so ripe for the picking. Major vendors are shuttering windows, and heads are rolling at a rate not seen since 1793 at the Place de la Concorde. And there is plenty of collateral damage in or near the LIMS arena. Third party consulting firms either specializing in providing hired help to LIMS vendors, or lone wolf agencies picking up customers that have fallen off the major vendor's radar screen, are sending inordinate numbers of "consultants" to the Unemployment Office. One major firm, specializing in validation services, simply closed shop, stranding numerous customers in mid-project.p>The strong get stronger, but vendors electing not to invest in the technological future of their products, preferring to extract the last drops of revenue from stagnant software without significant engineering investment, are doomed to one of three fates. p>Behind Door Number 1, is the LIMS division that is subservient to a larger, fiscally aggressive behemoth. It doesn't take many down quarters for such organizations to lop off non-performing entities like dead limbs from a cedar. Note that the harbinger of The Lop is a massive assault on upper management. When you hear that senior managers have been canned, you need to draft some contingency plans for that new system you were considering, or the system you're providing safe harbor to. p>Door Number 2 is the sale of a LIMS division or company, hoping that someone else has the time and wherewithal to invest in the product. If the system is purchased, there may be an earnest attempt to shore up the product but, on a much larger scale, keep an eye on Oracle's assault on PeopleSoft. Larry Ellsion has stated that he plans to kill off PeopleSoft products and absorb the customer base. If a sale doesn't go through, as in the case of the aforementioned validation consulting company, Door Number 2 dead-ends into Door Number 1. p>Door Number 3 deals with LIMS companies not part of a larger company. There are a few, and they tend to be more agile than those belonging to larger companies. Nonetheless, they fail too, and predator companies may offer pennies on the dollar for them to absorb their customer base, or try to leverage their product to fill a need without having to develop a product from scratch. That is a daunting task; you will likely not see many new LIMS developed from square one, as LIMS is not a huge market, and the cost of developing a product from ground zero is increasing, even with zillions of unemployed engineers here and abroad.p>So we find ourselves at a point of inflection in the industry. There are some companies who are making serious investment in their products. Now, any proud company out there feels they belong in this category, but it is not up to the company to declare that a "major version upgrade" has head-spinning functionality; it is the customer base who must feel that there is added value. But, this unique time is not one of financial thin ice. The gut check in the boardroom should understand one key point; the supply and demand curve is not equilibrated in the LIMS industry. There is a shortage of good product;, and customers driven by demands for increased productivity, compliance fears, and ancient systems begging replacement have to buy something. p>What that means is that companies who are progressive are really investing in product architecture for two reasons. First, they know that they must invest to meet the changing times. But second, and more importantly, the industry is truly open to a dominating player. By going above and beyond the normal investment curve, the truly progressive vendors stand a chance at knocking struggling vendors right into oblivion like Akebono hurling his opponents into the third row of seats at a sumo tournament. It comes down to thinking differently:br>"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking." md> General George S. Patton.p>I like that, because it underlines the value of innovation.p>Of course, what is a customer to do? It's one thing for professionals in the business for longer than vanity permits us to admit to know what's what behind closed doors, but it's quite another for that potential customer looking to upgrade, or those customers taking a swim in the LIMS pool for the first time. Evaluating LIMS happens to be a profession for me, but then, by most societal standards, I'm insane. Yes, back in eighth grade, while you were painting that bowl of fruit in the front of the room, I was that kid that sat next to you rendering a horrific scene of carnage and disaster of a propane truck explosion. Hey, I paint what I see.p>And what I see now is not slack times in the LIMS industry; I see golden meadows, lush rain forests, and snow-capped Rockies. The strong are getting stronger, as they should. Would competition help the industry? Of course, but the ability to compete is getting harder as vendors tighten budget ropes, and resolve is fading.p>I saw a replay of Lance Armstrong's first Tour de France win. He had just retuned from an unbelievable journey through cancer and chemotherapy. On a mountain stage, the two leaders were pedaling up side by side when, suddenly; Lance comes right up behind them. Astonished that anyone could catch these climbers on a steep mountain; imagine their shock when they realized it was a guy no one expected to be there. Armstrong split right between them, accelerated up the mountain, and looked back and dared them to keep up. Resolve was history.There is one more quote that comes to mind as I gently sauté some Morels here in my kitchen, and wonder who is making a pile of money off these tasty little fungi:br>"Nothing focuses the mind better than the constant sight of a competitor who wants to wipe you off the map." md> Wayne Calloway. p>I>Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He can be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com./I>/t1>

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