Interview: The how and why of IBBL’s move to Dudelange

IBBL’s story started in 2010, when the first six employees moved in a pre-fabricated building in Luxembourg. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then. And seven years later, the forty staff members are getting ready to write a new chapter, with an upcoming move to a much bigger building in Dudelange. Dominic Allen (DA), IBBL’s Chief Operating Officer, tells us his side of the story.

Interview by Mélanie Moxhet (MM)

MM: What does the move mean to you?

DA: I have had the pleasure to work with colleagues for seven years growing and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in the organisation. Moving from a temporary building to a permanent one shows that IBBL is no longer a “start-up”, nor a test, a project: IBBL has grown into an established, some would say indispensable, player in the Luxembourgish scientific landscape. Our efforts have paid off, and our new, permanent, high quality facilities are witness to that.

MM: When did IBBL take the decision to move to Dudelange?

DA: It all started 4 years ago. At that time, our activities had been growing significantly and we realised that sooner or later the capacity of our current building would restrain our development. So we started looking for a permanent building and  investigated half a dozen different options, ranging from extending our current facilities to renting space in the House of BioHealth in Esch, before the possibility to move to Dudelange was offered to us. This space had been designed for the Radiation Protection Agency, but it proved unsuitable because of its proximity to the French nuclear plant in Cattenom. In 2015, our supervisory ministries, which recognised our needs, grabbed the opportunity and brought this offer to us. The building was already under construction and the concrete structure was being completed.

MM: What has been your role in this challenging task?

DA: My main task has been to listen to the needs of our different departments and to act as the interface between IBBL, the architects and the design offices, translating operational needs into architectural and technical requirements. The public buildings administration (ABP) and all the design offices working for them have done a fabulous job. They have gone out of their way to adapt the design to our needs. One example is the “Chinese restaurant lift”, as I like to call it. To avoid having to carry the samples from the 1st to the 3rd floor, using the goods and passenger lifts, they have designed and installed a lift dedicated to samples. This was not forseen in the initial design, but they made it possible. Another example is the humidity control system incorporated into the air conditioning system of our biobank. When you take a sample out of liquid nitrogen, it hits the ambient air and the water in the air condenses and freezes on the sample. If the humidity level is too high, the consequent frost or ice may cause problems for handling and bar code scanning.

MM: What are the benefits and disadvantages of the new location?

DA: The figures speak for themselves. We will more than double our floor area, not to mention that our storage capacity will be increased by at least 10 times. This extra space will allow us to separate the different types of our operations. One room will be dedicated to DNA extraction, while a separate one will be used for RNA extraction, and there will also be two cell culture rooms. All of this is intended to isolate the various activities and avoid cross-contamination.

The whole structure has been designed in a way that fits our operational and technical needs. It was crucial for IBBL to take the human aspect into account as well. There is a strong team spirit within the biobank and in order to keep on this collaborative and pleasant atmosphere we decided to locate the kitchen and some of the photocopiers between the offices and the laboratories for example. We hope people will meet around the coffee machine and birthday cakes, and no one will end up isolated whatsoever!

From a logistical point of view, as we are moving away from the CHL, we will have to re-organise the transport of some of our samples. The Laboratoire National de Santé (LNS), to which our new building is annexed, has a temperature-controlled van that picks up samples from all hospitals several times a day. Ideally, we will be able to piggy back on this service. In addition, the move will allow us to strengthen our collaboration with the LNS in many different areas, from services provided to the other, to the Plan Cancer Collection.

MM: About 350,000 samples are stored at IBBL and dozens of equipments are installed in your labs. How will you proceed with the move concretely?

DA: Our biorefinery, biorepository and IT departments have been working on a move plan, with quality and risk management very present. The whole process, from the moment the keys to our new building are given to us until the last person is out of the current building, will take about three months. The move of the samples and equipment will be concentrated into a period of about three weeks. We will start with the biorepository, its freezers and tanks. A specialised moving company will ensure the integrity of the samples the whole time, by using trucks with generators to power the freezers for instance.

It is also critical for IBBL to ensure the continuity of our services to our clients, who rely on us 6 days per week in the case of clinical trials. To accomplish this, we will set up duplicated equipment in the new building before moving the corresponding operations.

MM: To conclude, this move represents much more work than one can imagine. Would you do it again?

DA: This job has taken me back to one of my first jobs, as a design engineer for hospital construction projects. This flash back in time is great fun, and I admit that the atmosphere of the construction site is a source of personal pleasure. I think it is the same for us all; our first jobs have a special significance for each of us throughout our careers, even if we end up in completely different sectors later on. The project is also a remarkable team effort as everyone has taken the time to study the drawings and make comments. We have made changes based on observations which the architects and I had completely overlooked. There is still a lot to do, but working together, we will ensure a smooth transition to this new phase in IBBL’s history.

MM: Thank you Dominic for taking the time to answer my questions.

More stories to come…