Biorepository and biobank sustainability can be a balancing act. It requires managing a biobank’s operational, social, and financial obligations to remain effective and competitive over its expected lifespan. However, biobanks vary significantly in terms of scale, focus, and setup, meaning there is no one size fits all solution, especially in relation to their frozen assets and financial stability. Here we will summarize some of the recommendations collected by experts in the industry.
Biobank & biorepository management
Biobanks, especially those embedded or affiliated with public health facilities, may not be recognized as separate entities with their own economic activities. As such, little attention is accorded to managing their expenses and revenues, with them treated as an expense of the healthcare system. Their primary focus has been ensuring their proper operation, biospecimen management, and addressing the health system’s social and political needs.
Nevertheless, a biobank’s operation and social contract have a role to play in its overall sustainability. Managing a biobank entails collecting, processing, storage, and distributing samples and data, as well as their access policies, risk and quality assessment, and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Optimizing these processes and making them more efficient will contribute to a biobank’s sustainability1.
The social dimension relates to the relationship the biobank can foster with its stakeholders; this may include funders, donors, users, and the general public it serves. Failing here can lead to a loss of support of key stakeholder groups, which is detrimental to the sustainability of an individual biobank and possibly the biobanking field as a whole1.
Politically, the biobank can also present a clear benefit to society, as is the case with disease-specific biobanks (i.e., recent COVID-19 biobanks), which can serve to secure public funding.
While these points are important, the biobank’s long-term sustainability must also be considered, which requires a sustainable financial strategy that plans for the continued maintenance of their bioresources. With most biobanks operating on a timescale of 10 to 30 years when collecting samples, there can be a considerable lag between a biobank’s start and its potential output regarding patient outcomes. This necessitates securing long-term stakeholder commitment and funding, as the unpredictable and often short-term nature of public financing makes long-term sustainability difficult.
Most Biobanks were founded through a one-time funding grant, used to establish the needed infrastructure, equipment, and hiring necessary staff2. This means a fully-developed plan to support the long-term sustainability of the biobank is often lacking. Moreover, biorepositories can range from open access, multi-user facilities to small single-user collections. This difference in classification makes establishing an approach that can be implemented across the board difficult, as each biobank has its own needs and perspective. Thus, most research on biobank sustainability has focused on the larger biobanks that cater to whole institutions and multiple users. Nonetheless, the lessons learned from the bigger biobanks, such as the business and value mindset, can be applied to all types of biobanks, large and small. These should only serve as guidelines, with each biobank adapting them to their individual situation.
Implementing a business model
One of the essential tools for managing economic stability in biobanks is establishing a business plan. A business plan is generally structured to encompass a company’s activities over the next five years, with greater detail added for the initial years. Some of the key sections of the plan include3:
- Organization data & structure
- Project description & mission
- Market analysis & strategy
- Revenue & cost analysis
The organization section should provide general information on the activities being performed and the staff. This can also include data on the origin and type of biobank, its founder or senior manager, the number of samples being stored, and the kind of biospecimens being stored. A personnel organizational chart, which provides brief profiles of the human resources being employed and reports the different tasks they perform, should also be included3.
The project description should detail the objectives to be reached through the implementation of biobanking activities. The mission statement explains the organization’s purpose and defines why it exists and needs to be maintained.
The market analysis outlines the relationships with stakeholders, defines the demand, and identifies the competitors in the industry. A successful marketing strategy should also specify the best way to make its products recognizable to customers.
The economic analysis section includes an analysis of possible revenue streams and outlines the expected operational costs. The cost breakdown should detail each expense that a biobank will need to sustain its operational activities, divided into individual categories3. Revenue can include all the money collected from private and public channels and income raised through the administration of its services.
Determine your value
Understanding your value is at the core of sustainable biobanking. A biobanks’ actual value lies in how it can improve patient outcomes through research and innovation. This requires that collected samples and data be distributed and used to further research, not merely collected and stored. Once you determine how your services contribute value to the field, you must establish how you will convert that value into resources for the biobank. To this end, every biobank must define who their “users” are, what their needs are, and work on establishing an infrastructure and developing products and services to meet those needs. Unfortunately, utilization rates in most biobanks are low, with an international survey reporting rates as low as 10%1.
Thus, the challenge is adequately communicating that value proposition to your various stakeholders. This can be achieved by underscoring the benefits provided by your biobank. To direct users, the benefits might appear obvious; however, to stakeholders who are indirect users, these benefits may be harder to judge. As such, it is imperative to continue to engage these stakeholders as well and keep them on board. Performance indicators, cost-benefit analyses, and financial metrics might be more attractive to financial backers. At the same time, social benefits, such as the generation of knowledge, the education of users, and the discovery of clinical innovations could be more appealing to donors.
Funding & managing costs
A biobank must raise enough funding to cover its start-up and operation costs at launch. This is usually provided by hosting institutes or research grants and will last for an initial period of three to five years. It is imperative that the biobank transition to a sustainable financial model during this timeframe. While the hosting institute may continue to support the biobank, other sources should also be developed, which can take time. The existence of commercial biobanks demonstrates the feasibility of this. Ideally, the biobank should establish multiple funding sources and revenue streams. Some of the more common sources currently are private donations, institutional budget, public funding, private funding, and user fees. Overall, the biobank must start to focus on long-term investments and sustainability rather than short-term solutions.
Managing costs is an essential part of sustainable biobanking solutions. Moreover, understanding the total cost of your biobank is key when identifying potential cost-saving and efficiency measures. Biobanks tend to require a large capital investment in infrastructure and equipment at first, with these costs decreasing over time. As the biobank matures, operation and personnel costs rise significantly and represent the biobanks’ main expenses. To maintain sustainability over the long-term, costs related to sample and data collection, laboratory sample management, specimen storage and processing, as well as retrieval and distribution, must be kept under control. Here are some tips that can help you manage costs1:
- Improve specimen storage efficiency to reduce the per sample storage costs
- Automation can lessen personnel costs, allowing greater sample processing with minimal staff
- Choose the right supplier of lab consumables, considering quality and price
- Collaborate with other biobanks to share expenses on equipment and software
- Assess what samples are stored, and discard samples that are likely to go unused
LabTAG understands the challenges faced by biobanks and biorepositories and provides identification solutions designed to help minimize costs. Our labels are made of durable material with a strong permanent adhesive that will not fail, even under extreme cryogenic conditions. These specimen labels can be printed with 1D/2D barcodes and integrated into a biobank LIMS for superior tracking, reducing losses from identification error and cutting down on search time. Our labels can also be made compatible with most automated systems to help your staff focus on other tasks.
LabTAG by GA International is a leading manufacturer of high-performance specialty labels and a supplier of identification solutions used in research and medical labs as well as healthcare institutions.
- Sustainable Biobanking: The Financial Dimension. Van der Stijl, R. and Eijdems, L. Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure (BBMRI). 2019 Sep.
- Finding the Path to Biobank Sustainability Through Sound Business Planning. Henderson M, Simeon-Dubach D, Albert M. Biopreserv Biobank. 2015 Dec;13(6):385-6.