Woman in a lab wearing a VR headset

In our latest blog, we seek to define the metaverse, examine it’s current applications and what role it may have for the biopharmaceutical industry.

What is the metaverse?

In late 2021, facebook changed its corporate name to Meta a move that it said was designed to better “encompass” its range of business activities.  Facebook’s statement outlined its plan to bring the metaverse to life. After our initial bewilderment, many of us consulted Google and asked, “What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is a combination of a number of different technologies including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and video. Users in the ‘real-world’ can engage in a range of activities in the metaverse by using mobile phones or a VR headset (e.g. Meta’s Oculus headset).  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg envisages the metaverse as a place where you can “share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together — and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world”.

Will the metaverse really shape the digital future?

The concept of the metaverse is still very new and even Zuckerberg believes that it may be five to ten years before the metaverse becomes mainstream. However, there is no denying that brands and the corporate world have already been quick to embrace its possibilities. Millions are already been invested in virtual property and consumer brands such as Coca Cola, Louis Vuitton and Nike have entered the metaverse directly, via acquisition or through partnerships. McLaren have recently rolled out a virtual racing experience where fans could race a virtual car as part of a Roblox in-game experience.

Does the metaverse offer possibilities for healthcare?

Yes, is the short answer. In fact, AR has already been used for a number of years to train medical students on a range of different surgeries. Surgeries have also taken place on living patients and in 2020, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeons performed the institution’s first AR surgeries. In the first surgery, physicians placed six screws in a patient’s spine for spinal fusion surgery to fuse three vertebrae in to relieve the patient’s chronic, debilitating back pain. In a second surgery, surgeons removed a cancerous tumor from the spine of a patient.

Where does the metaverse offer opportunities for the biopharmaceutical industry?

GMP manufacturing: The ISPE define GMP as a “system for ensuring that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards”. It is designed to minimize the risks involved in any pharmaceutical production that cannot be eliminated through testing the final product. The emphasis for GMP manufacturing is on following protocols precisely and recording everything. Ben Thompson, ValitaCell’s Chief Technology Officer, believes that AR could really help with GMP manufacturng where the emphasis is on following protocols precisely and recording everything. “Also, if it is recording, it could allow errors to be traced back exactly. For example, if someone added 1g of salt instead of 0.1g. If the operator is being lead around the lab with AR, it is likely to make sure the exact same process is being followed everytime.”

Digital Twins: There have been some extremely interesting collaborations on Digital Twins. One such collaboration is between BMW and NVIDIA. Factories and assembly lines can be reconfigured virtually in real-time to account for new vehicle launches. Ergonomics on the assembly line can be explored using motion capture suits while another colleague uses software to adjust placement of parts and line design in real time. BMW assembly lines have to do custom builds in a high-throughput manner, being able to test material flows through the factory is good for planning. Paul Dobson, ValitaCell’s Head of Data, states that the ‘Right-First-Time Design’ is the key phrase people use in relation to Digital Twins. The logic is that “if the metaverse is realistic enough, a digital design should transfer across to the real world”.

Training: The most obvious application of the metaverse for the biopharmaceutical industry is training.  While suppliers endeavour to train their customers or staff physically, in real-world laboratories, this is challenging to scale globally and Covid has further limited possibilities. Training and customer demonstrations could be transformed through an immerse VR experience. Future VR training could visualise all of the people, equipment and setups without requiring physical objects or people to be present.

Customer engagement: Outside of training, is it conceivable that suppliers and customers will meet in the metaverse? Biopharma conferences are one example of where this could happen. Indeed some conference organisers have already trialled virtual stands or enabled attendees take part virtually. The former has been somewhat underwhelming to date with disappointed suppliers waiting in vain for attendees. If and when VR headsets become more mainstream, a much more immersive experience could be delivered upon.

Visualisation of data: ValitaCell is in the business of advanced analytics and our newest technology is AI powered software known as CellAi. This technology enables the extraction of rich cell data by virtually staining the cells. While today, our customers can view these stains on their computer screens, could the metaverse enable our customers to view and interpret rich data using their VR headsets that could connect directly with the cloud?

It’s clear that the metaverse is in its infancy and largely a concept right now. However, big tech giants such as Meta and Microsoft, alongside hardware and software companies will accelerate the development of the metaverse and propel us to a reimaging of the internet as we know it today. We don’t quite know yet how the metaverse will change the biopharmaceutical industry but it will be fascinating to watch it play out.

Dr. Paul Dobson
Dr. Paul Dobson
ValitaCell Head of Data

Dr. Dobson is a biochemist by degree with a PhD in Machine Learning. He has worked for 20 years at the intersection of Biology, Computer Science and Engineering. He has published 35 peer-reviewed research articles, reviews and book chapters across bioinformatics, scientific text mining, drug discovery, systems biology and bioprocess engineering. At ValitaCell, Paul leads the Data Team, applying Machine and Deep Learning across the company's portfolio of analytical tools that support better biologics and cell therapy manufacturing

Ben Thompson - Chief Technology Officer
Dr. Ben Thompson
ValitaCell Chief Technology Officer

Dr. Thompson is a cell line development scientist with a unique combination of education and expertise in bioprocess engineering, mathematics and statistics. Previously, he held the position of Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. Dr. Thompson has a Ph.D. in Bioprocess Engineering and Graduate Certificate in Statistics [Distinction]. Ben is a key inventor on a number of ValitaCell patents (Fluorescence Polarisation quantitation, Nanobody Quantitation) and he is a domain AI expert with patents pending [Cell Biology].

Kevin Friel - Chief Marketing Officer
Kevin Friel
ValitaCell Chief Marketing Officer

Kevin Friel has over twenty years of international marketing experience working on international brands. Kevin manages ValitaCell's marketing plans and brand building activities globally. Kevin also manages distributor partners and customers in Asia.

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