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Lighting the SPaRCS

Inside the mission to invent the equipment and technologies needed for tomorrow’s scientific discoveries.

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The romantic notion of the eccentric, lone inventor is common on big screens but it’s the combined creativity of an ensemble cast that powers AbbVie’s Specialized Research in Chaotic Systems (SPaRCS) team. Led by engineer Jeff Pan, a 30-year biomedical instrument engineering veteran, SPaRCS’ mission is to invent a multitude of sci-fi-esque systems and technologies that facilitate the drug discovery process. Since its inception, the team has developed over 600 instruments to help researchers transform molecules from their discovery into efficacious, safe medications.

Jeff Pan, SPaRCS’ lead

A handpicked band of engineers from a wide range of backgrounds, the SPaRCS team ranges from microfluidics experts to rocket engineers to marine engine designers. “I hire people who are interesting, who’re curious, who’re flexible,” Pan says. While at first glance, this might seem like an unconventional group, ultimately, the diversity of the team means each person approaches every problem with a unique solution, drawing from their specialization — often yielding unexpected inventions and discoveries along the way.

Steve Elmore, Pan’s immediate supervisor and VP of Drug Discovery Science and Technology understands SPaRCS’ way of doing things and gives the team members space to improve each division and research lab. “Let me be clear,” he says, “I never give Jeff assignments.” Instead, he makes sure other labs and teams know about SPaRCS so they can come to them with problems. “That way,” he notes, “We take approaches that no one else thinks are possible.”

The SPaRCS team is especially proud of the recent advent of BREATHE robots, a piece of technology that allows for researchers to test 24 potential drug molecules simultaneously, rather than manually testing one sample at a time. The BREATHE robots were born out of a request from an R&D team exploring potential treatments for Cystic Fibrosis, as the process of testing molecules was cumbersome and time consuming. In an unbelievable feat, the SPaRCS team delivered a solution in eight months. “It’s not the tool that I’m proud of,” Pan clarifies, “it’s the people that created it.”