Datesand News

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The ‘New Normal’

As UK lockdown has come to an end, more and more industries are expected to start getting back to a level of normality, but what is the ‘new normal’ for the LAS sector in the UK?

On 28th July, we tuned in to ‘What is the New Normal for Animal Research Facilities in the Next Decade?’ with Steven Cubitt, Managing Director at CC Tech, a specialist provider supporting the design, development & operation of biomedical, biocontainment and cleanroom environments for leading scientific research and healthcare institutions.

As a member of the IAT Council and the Chair of the Board of Educational Policy, Steven took some time to discuss with fellow industry professionals what was to be expected, potentially over the next decade, for facilities across the UK and perhaps beyond.

For those who had strong contingency and continuity plans in place pre-COVID-19 with human and animal welfare at the heart of their plans, though still difficult, a return to some form of normality should come easier.

Greatly summed up, there is a ‘formula’ for the greatest potential for success, but of course, this will take time…

Making Changes

An obvious and initially effective change most facilities will need to make is significantly reducing stock levels. By maintaining a more efficient level of stock to the necessities while still meeting to regulation expectations, facilities should save some costs immediately. Steven did mention that however; this would not be the case for all facilities, those that have remained fully operational throughout this period or worked at a reduced capacity have simply changed practices to keep costs down and maintain welfare.

That is why Steven also believes that a change in institutional policies will be fundamental in terms of getting back to an efficient way of working. There are ways to adapt to change to simplify the process of getting back to work.

Ventilation, though offering large operating costs and environmental impacts, can be used to a new capacity with great potential to invite more innovative technology and improve air quality within facilities – something that will be key in providing a healthier and safer working environment.

While refurbishments may be needed for many, Steven explains how important it is to aim for long-term use by investing in time and using existing performance data to make informed decisions about adaptations. In terms of preparing for this, setting a strategy to measure against expectations is exactly what funders want to see. Offering gains and planning with a green agenda is exactly what will push a facility to achieve funding.

But all this investment in new practices ultimately creates a host of opportunities for a more efficient way of working.

“I think this is a great opportunity to change how our facilities work”, Steven explains. “We need to learn the lessons from the previous four months and see how we can approach things going forward”.

And this is where the power of automation comes in. With all the fantastic technology we have on offer today, there is great opportunity to replace once time consuming man power jobs with reliable automated technology. By once again investing in these kinds of opportunities, both human and animal needs can be met while maintaining safety, productivity and a high level of animal welfare.

Challenges:

In this return to ‘normal’ a focus for all industries across the UK is creating a Green Recovery in response to impacts of COVID-19 and animal facilities are no different. However, of all the facilities, animal facilities are absolutely one of the least green.

According to Steven, as an industry, we are “probably the least green we have ever been”. He explains how “the need for more disposables and people looking at additional filtration has a big demand on energy”. On top of this, the demand for large facilities with high levels of stock, cost of staff and energy use create some of the biggest costs.

Steven also believes that it’s hard to imagine carbon neutral facility, however he does suggest that “cutting energy by 30-40% is achievable, but it’s not straight forward and has a number of challenges”.

Another struggle that may affect a large portion of the industry is the ability to win funding and grants for researchers. Of course, many facilities have still been able to carry out research, especially for the coronavirus – and they have been greatly supported – but other and perhaps smaller projects may not get the support they need, especially if the changes aren’t made within a facility to make it a more workable environment.

With the amount of time it is likely to take, Steven encourages the opportunity to prioritise and balance out workload. There will be increasing pressure to be more productive, but this cannot be done until an efficient plan is in place to go forward.

What to expect

On top of the physical changes, we need to respect that this has been a difficult time for many workers. For some just returning to work, it may be hard to get back, especially with the anxiety that this virus still has not disappeared and, of course, challenges thorughout this period such as animal euthanasia will have taken a toll on a number of workers who work so hard to care for the animals in their facilities. So, creating a positive, productive environment with proper training and processes to make this way of life easier for everyone is essential.

More importantly, we need to use this time to reflect. By learning what went well, what didn’t go so well and so what not to do going forward. Steven remarked, “it’s a fantastic industry we work in, everyone shares knowledge and I think it’s from these shared experiences, both good and bad and we all have both experiences”. So, he encourages professionals from all over the country, all over the world to communicate about how they are changing in this new world.

It will come as no surprise to see a change in research trends as there already has been as the fight for an effective COVID-19 vaccine has been put to the forefront. This is why we need to be ready and adaptable to change. Steven laid out an effective timeline that can work as a great guide for the next few years, for UK facilities particularly but not entirely!

The Positives

Like almost everything, the hasn’t come without it’s positives! And it’s important that we reflect on those. Communication has been key – In Steven’s opinion, we’ve been communicating within the industry now more than ever, and that’s something we should seriously focus on and continue to do so.

In a time where work has been minimal for some, training and education has been greatly appreciated and valued for technicians, who have used these past four months to catch up on their education. They have understood the value of education for employment – especially when getting work could become difficult.

As there already has been, Steve is confident that more training can take place online and he knows that through the likes of the IAT, big apprenticeship investments will continue to push this a create more opportunities for technicians.

Trade support

Understandably, there is a level of concern about support from suppliers and trade going forward but there is a lot of reassurance that the support is absolutely there, and traders have a lot to offer in terms of innovation, equipment management and operations.

We also spoke to Tim McDougle, Managing Director of Avidity Science EMEA, a specialist supplier of laboratory products for the life science, healthcare and vivarium markets. Tim and his team have also remained fully functional throughout this period…

“We have maintained a full service for our customers throughout, there is no “back to business” feeling as we have continually supported them with their sales and service requirements. That said, it is certainly getting busier and we are noticing a shift in workload as more and more sites open and run at full capacity.”

It was very interesting to hear about the effects of a national lockdown and continuing to serve the industry from Tim’s perspective. He told us all about the challenges surrounding using the governments furlough scheme and working from home, but also benefiting from an improved work-life balance. By maintaining continuity throughout this period, learning to communicate more, becoming more resilient, reducing travelling and spending more time with family, Tim feels that the team at Avidity are in a strong position to support the industry going forward.

While the “new normal” will inevitably take time to implement in our animal facilities, there is also a complete shift change in how we, as suppliers, learn to do business. Returning from a period of furlough, both myself and Alanah have jumped into a new way of working. At Datesand we have always prided ourselves in being a great team and much of this stemmed from physically being in the workplace together – even remote workers such as myself and the other sales team members were regularly on site and all employee meetings, lunches and social events were the norm.

With social distancing still in place, we can no longer have all staff in at the same time and most of the team are splitting their time between home working and the office. This means for most that the commute time has been cut significantly and the working day has become more flexible depending on our partners and children’s schedules. These are both positive things to have come out. However, the day to day and face to face contact with people, the quick chat while making a coffee or over lunch, the reassuring hand on a shoulder or hug are gone.

Tim closed with, “We feel positive about the future and keen to support our customers as much as we can in the race to beat Covid-19. For sure there will be long term changes, some things will never go back to how they were before and that is a good thing for the most part, but we have learned that whatever is thrown at us we will emerge from it stronger and homemade sandwiches for lunch are certainly cheaper than bought ones!”

The “new normal” will soon become second nature, we miss the face to face element, both with colleagues and customers alike. Even the commute and that time in the car or on the train to get mentally ready for the day or to decompress on the way home is missed…somehow the journey across the landing to the home office just doesn’t have the same effect!

Across The Pond – COVID-19 Impacts

The United Kingdom (UK) has just entered week nine of social distancing stay at home regulations unless, that is, you are a key worker, carrying out an essential shopping or medical journey, or leaving your home for exercise. The public is, in the main, under-standing, and compliant to ensure the slowdown of COVID-19’s spread.

While UK and European industry events such as AFSTAL, AST2020, and ScandLAS have been postponed or canceled, and the order is to work from home as possible, laboratory animal technologists continue to carry out essential care, welfare, and research tasks within animal facilities.

Impacts on Technicians

An academic facility manager, who wished to remain anonymous, shared thoughts on the pandemic’s impact.

“Many facilities are completing current studies and not starting any new ones for the time being, with many colonies and research activities just ticking over at a minimal level,” she said.

She noted that many technicians are struggling. Euthanasia
is hard and mental health awareness is important for technicians even in a normal environment. When something like this happens, the emotional stress is at a maximum and the technicians question everything they do on a daily basis.

“Campus can seem like a very lonely place. As a manager, I worry about my staff during this time and the lasting effect this will have on emotional wellbeing across the industry. While animal research is always essential, we need to support our staff now more than ever,” she added.

UK and EU Research Efforts

In late March, the UK government announced that six coronavi- rus research projects would benefit from a share of a £20 million government investment. Two of the six research trials will receive funding for pre-clinical and clinical vaccine trials as well as fund- ing to manufacture successful vaccines on a million-dose scale. Mice once again may be heroes with a number of animal trials set to go ahead. Professor Jonathan Heeney in the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge has already spoken of

a vaccine candidate that has the possibility to be ready for human trials as early as June thanks to the current DIOSynVax approach; a spin-out company of which he is CEO.

Imperial College London have also secured funding to move towards human trials after animal studies showed that their vaccine is able to produce antibodies that are effective against the virus. Researchers at Oxford University have also had promising results in their COVID-19 vaccine animal research.

A sense of collaboration has also proven effective as Cam- bridge University, GSK, and AstraZeneca have joined forces as part of the UK Government’s plan to boost testing. There will be a new testing laboratory set up specifically for this at the state-of- the-art Anne McLaren Building based on Cambridge University’s campus. Together they will provide high throughput screening for COVID-19 testing and to explore the use of alternative chemical reagents for test as well as providing process optimization support to the UK national testing centers.

Elsewhere in Europe, a collaboration between Utrecht Univer- sity, Erasmus MC, and Harbor BioMed has developed a human antibody that can inhibit the new SARS-CoV-2 – a promising step with plenty of potential.

Unprecedented Times

But it’s not just the researchers on the front line to whom we owe our gratitude at this unprecedented time, but also all the facility staff that come in for “business as usual” to continue their vital work and care for the animals that are so important.

Datesand CEO, Jonathon Wood, discussed the situation, some of the challenges faced and some positives that have come out of it. He believes that planning has been essential.

“We introduced policies for staff to keep two meters apart on site, to wash hands at least every hour and provided anti-bacterial gels and wipes to keep the surrounding as clean as possible. We sent questionnaires to identify staff, or family members of staff, who may be at risk and to ensure that all risks are minimized where possible,” Wood said.

Essential staff were identified, and all other staff could work from home with the provision of additional hardware such as lap- tops and phones to keep communication as fluid as possible. All of this was in place 2 days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the UK lockdown.

Support for Frontline Workers

In the UK, there is now a minute’s applause for our NHS and care workers every Thursday, where everyone stands on their doorsteps, balconies, at windows, or in gardens at 8 p.m. and claps. The na- tional response is incredible and the sound of people clapping can be heard across towns and cities nationwide. While standing with my family in our porch, I have been moved by the response but I’ve also reflected on our other COVID heroes – the grocery store workers, the prison officers, the delivery men and women, the sanitation workers, and of course research animal staff.

With a strong global response, we can hopefully slow and eventually stop the spread of this killer disease and with the con- tinued dedicated work of our animal research staff, find a vaccine in record time.

As we prepare for a long period of social distancing and undoubtedly a new normal on the other side, we thank all the laboratory animal workers globally for their service. Stay home, stay safe, and this too shall pass.

Nicky Windows is the Global Commercial Manager at Datesand in Manchester, United Kingdom

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The Datesand Story – Part 1

As we celebrate Datesand’s 40th birthday, we thought it important to take a step back and delve into our incredible journey to date to see just how far we have come and how on earth we got here.

 

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The early days

It’s fair to say that Datesand started from very humble beginnings. Barry Wood, a chemist by training, had been working for Honeywell Medical Supplies London looking after sales of medical equipment here in the UK and internationally. With his family firmly based up in the north, Barry grew tired of the weekly commute and had a desire to start up his own business here in Manchester.

In 1980 he moved back home with his family in Sale and began the process of getting his business up and running. Datesand started in a small upstairs box room office in the family home with one telephone, one double drawer filing cabinet and a typewriter.

As a trained chemist, Barry had access to some innovative chemical formulae that would prove very useful in his business venture. These included the formulae for Datesand’s very first products; Betadet 99 and Betadet 101 which are effective glassware detergents aimed at the hospital and laboratory markets.

Barry’s next move was to hire a tiny lock-up garage just down the road in Stretford, Manchester. This became essentially the company’s ‘chemical mixing plant’ of sorts. The simple but effective equipment consisted of a couple of large blue vats and a wooden oar that was used to stir the concoction. Barry’s two sons Nick and Jonathon Wood were there getting involved in the action as children and teenagers, helping to dispense and mix the powdered chemicals and liquids, carefully testing and packing finished products. After lots of trials and tribulations, eventually the Wood Family team produced their first official batch of Betadet 99, a product which has seriously stood the test of time.

The first of many customers to come on board with the infant company was the prestigious Paterson Institute Cancer Research Laboratory where the staff took to Barry straight away and saw that his disinfectants and detergents were just the kind of simple, effective and, above all, safe products they’d been looking for. Now as well as actually mixing the product in the Stretford ‘facility’, Barry would also suit up, deliver the products and use his undoubted salesman skills to try to gain increased business. Datesand was pretty much a one-man band in those days, with a little family help on the production side.

Building a product range

As he met more and more clients, Barry would always try actively to discover what other products the scientists and technicians needed in order to run their operations effectively and safely. Armed with this information, he started to build up the product range with new products like disposable gloves, masks and famously, aprons (Barry came up with the unbeatable strapline ‘No more wet socks’ for the latter). Between 1980 and 1983 Barry was able to add a whole raft of laboratory consumables to Datesand’s catalogue.

The business started off very locally with all of the original clientele based in and around Manchester. By 1983, after meeting with technicians and scientists in a number of hospital and research laboratories, one much-needed product that did become apparent was high-quality laboratory animal bedding. At this time, to Barry’s surprise, labs were using fairly basic and often rather rough sawdust residues from local sawmills. To meet the demand for something much better and more appropriate, Barry set up a partnership with a local wood processing company, Wood Treatment Ltd based just South of Manchester, with the aim of developing and manufacturing bespoke bedding grades from quality raw material. Working with this enthusiastic new partner was to become a key pillar of Datesand’s progress. This new partnership and the quality, refined bedding products the teams were able to develop, really helped the business to start to make strong progress (and some actual profit).

A basecamp is established

In 1986, the company moved into its first official (but still rather small) premises in Openshaw. Though Nick and Jonathon were still in school at this point, the boys would spend their summer holidays working at the family business doing ‘warehouse’ work like helping to pack up the products for delivery. At this point, Barry’s wife Janet Wood also started to get more involved and so the company became more and more family based.

Now that a little money was starting to come in, it became possible to invest in some essential new (pre-loved!) machinery. This included a guillotine for cutting absorbent paper products, a laminating machine and a slitting machine for cutting down the master reels from which the trayliners were cut (Back in the 1980s, under-cage metal trays with absorbent paper liners were just as or even more commonly used than wood bedding) This pretty ambitious investment helped Barry and the team to run a much more efficient service and provide clients with the consumable supplies they needed, when they needed them.

After studying at South Trafford college, Jonathon then came to work full time for the family business. He found a real love for the thrill of a sale and was excited to follow in his father’s footsteps. Nick meanwhile went to pursue a career selling advertising for the Manchester Evening News.

 

The next chapter will be published here 3rd April 2020

Make sure you call back 

The Datesand Story – Part 2

The growing team
From the late eighties to the early nineties, Barry, Jonathon, Janet and a few new important faces helped to further develop and grow the business. One of those faces was Simon Thorp. Simon was first introduced to Datesand in 2002. He became a vital asset to the team helping the company to expand into wider markets. The company was now gaining traction in international markets thanks to the language skills (and charm of course) of Simon and another linguist colleague Brian Hooley. In 1990, Datesand had their first bulk orders from large, prestigious clients in Europe, exporting initially to France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

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The company continued, completely self-financed and by 1994, things were looking great. There were even more products being added to the catalogue and the team had grown to around 13. The late Mike Slater came on board to expand the new horticultural range, RainGel granules, Rainmats and Holiday Watering Mats which used some of the same basic absorbency materials as the absorbent products sold into the research sector. Rapid progress in this and the core research markets continued until there came the very sad and unexpected news in 1995 when Barry was diagnosed with multiple melanoma, a form of leukaemia, at just 48 years old.

 

Dark and difficult days
The family and of course the business to which Barry was so central were now plunged into very difficult and dangerous times. As the face of the business that clients had got to know and trust, Barry’s illness and subsequent need to withdraw himself from the business took a heavy toll. Nick left his job at the Manchester Evening News to come back and help and Jonathon took the reins of the business. Jonathon put a strong focus on continuing to drive sales, Nick managed production, ensuring quality and quantity were still as they needed to be while Janet managed company accounts and looked after a lot of the customer support and day to day communications.

 

Barry very sadly passed away in 1998. Datesand had not long since been close to making its first million-pound turnover before his death but the loss of the company’s founder and main driving force proved to be Datesand’s biggest challenge to date. Understandably, business and of course profits took a huge knock. The family fought hard in the face of this struggle. The very day that Barry passed away, a huge order had come in for Super Absorbent Tray Liners that had to be shipped in 24 hours. Jonathon and Nick went straight from the hospital and, with the help of a few friends, worked 12 hours straight, overnight in the tiny production room. The team managed to produce and pack the order just in the nick of time (a large pizza order delivered also in the nick of time almost certainly ensured this triumph). The significant order, worth around £100,000, went out on time. The next chapter in Datesand’s history had begun with a terrible tragedy and then an amazing triumph over adversity.

 

The family continued to work together as a tight unit for another six or seven years. Still navigating pretty difficult times, they were faced with continuing challenges, some in particular being terribly hard to handle for the young and fairly inexperienced team. A number of genuine, good people had to be let go to keep the company’s head above water. As hard as this was, the decision had to be made to ensure the survival of the family business. While Jonathon continued to lead the company as Managing Director and Sales Director, Janet managed the accounts and customer relationships and meanwhile Nick left to pursue his dream of a career in sailing. From this point onwards, Jonathon began to master the business, controlling costs, redefining business goals, increasing sales and expanding markets.

 

The project gains pace

The Datesand team moved to new, larger premises in 1999 on Crabtree Lane in Openshaw, Manchester, where the Company took on its first mortgage. Here, a strong team of 5 were working to grow the business even further, taking risks, utilising low business rates and other financial support to help purchase essentials like company cars to improve sales and a van to cut out the costs of hiring vehicles. It was great to finally have office and warehouse space that not only improved logistics but offered a stable home for the business – somewhere the team could be proud to invite customers and begin personalising the Datesand brand. Crabtree Lane was a proper headquarters and the friendly, helpful team were delighted to have their base at last.

 

At this point, Datesand were only about 5th in the market, still relatively small and still definitely struggling to get to the next level of success. Throughout this time, the constant driving factor for Jonathon was that he could not let all Barry’s hard work be for nothing. He could not let his father’s death be in vain. He would often work up to 80 hours a week during these years, other members of the team also going the extra mile on many occasions. The next 10 years were full of challenges and hard work, ups and downs of every kind, but all the endeavour and determination would turn out to be well worth it in the end.

The Datesand Story – Part 3

The power of innovation

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2001 offered an opportunity for Datesand to gain a real advantage over its competitors – a completely unique and highly innovative product to add to its growing range. Pete Willan of Leicester University had designed the remarkable NestPak. This was a nesting and enrichment device for laboratory animals with precise, measured amounts of bedding encased in a food grade paper sachet which the laboratory animal would open itself. Pete came to us with the heart and belief that Datesand could make this a success and offered us the first opportunity to manufacture and market the ground-breaking product. Jonathon jumped at the chance to add this unique item to our catalogue and took decisive action to have the product patented. This development turned out to be a real spark, a definite catalyst which set the tone for the future and put Datesand on the road to becoming one of the leading innovators in the sector.

Jonathon had also started travelling to AALAS conventions in the USA from 1999 to meet new people, scope out new products and look for potential new partnerships. This became a fantastic opportunity to expand Datesand and its products into a whole new market. W F Fisher, based in New Jersey, became Datesand’s first official US distributor. Like us, they are a family business and after setting up a close partnership with the company, they received a license agreement from Datesand to manufacture and distribute Nestpaks in the US.

In March 2004, Simon became officially a full-time Datesand team member. International sales really began to kick off from this point onwards and a key focus was shifted onto animal enrichment – something that wasn’t viewed as important in our sector before the noughties but which was increasingly seen as vital to the animals’ well-being.  It could be exported more easily than bedding and certainly lent itself more closely to Datesand’s innovative instinct.

 

New happiness, new responsibilities

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Jonathon married the love of his life, Claire, around this time. Despite not officially working for the company Claire had supported Jonathon and his family in keeping the business alive back in the early 2000s. To add to the family’s happiness, Claire gave birth to their two beautiful daughters, Amber in 2005 and Sophie in 2008.  Jonathon now had even more to work for of course and unfortunately found himself seeing his family only on weekends after travelling around the country throughout the week.

With the strong desire to achieve more of a work-life balance and be able to spend more time with his beloved family, Jonathon began to expand the Datesand team, bringing in more sales staff and eventually introducing the Senior Management Team to share the load and to organise and run the business more efficiently. This also required a move to even larger premises in 2008 to allow the business to grow in roomier and more suitable surroundings.

Safetygel ‘bursts’ onto the scene

In the midst of an already pretty busy growth spurt, an amazing opportunity for Datesand to spread its wings and indeed its product range arrived in 2007. It came in the shape of an invitation to tender to supply superabsorbent sachets and granules to the NHS Supply Chain. The products would be used to absorb unwanted and dangerous liquids in hospital wards, operating theatres and a whole host of medical situations where infection might spread if liquids such as blood and urine were spilt. Feeling a little out of their depth, but never the kind to back away from a challenge, Jonathon and Simon set about designing a self-opening sachet, a granules shaker and even an absorbent tablet which would meet these very real clinical needs. To their amazement and great pleasure, they won the contract against a lot of very experienced competition. There then followed a race against time to finalise the sachet design (making sure it did actually burst open on contact with a liquid) and to find manufacturing partners for the packaging, presentation and logistics to ensure prompt delivery to NHS Supply Chain depots all across the country. With one or two ‘hiccoughs’ and a few tweaks along the way, Datesand were able proudly to join the ranks of key suppliers to the NHS Supply Chain and have been successfully supplying millions of units of Safetygel sachets, granules and absorbent pads ever since.