ZoomLab™ – The interview with Dr. Ferdinand Brandl from BASF

ZoomLab™ is the Virtual Pharma Assistant from BASF.  Pharma Excipients had the chance to interview one of the “masterminds” behind ZoomLab™, Dr. Ferdinand Brandl. Ferdinand answered all our questions on ZoomLab™.

See the video of the interview with Dr. Brandl here:

You can also read the transcript of our full interview with Ferdinand Brandl from BASF ZoomLab™ in the following with video outtakes for several questions and answers.

The interview

Pharma Excipients: Welcome to this Pharma Excipients interview with Ferdinand Brandl from BASF. Welcome, Ferdinand.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Hello.

Pharma Excipients: Ferdinand holds a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical technology. He is the mastermind behind ZoomLab, and he will answer our questions to ZoomLab today. Thank you very much for that.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: You’re welcome.

Pharma Excipients: So let me directly start. What is ZoomLab™ in one sentence?


Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Well, ZoomLab is a free online tool that allows formulators from the pharmaceutical industry to predict scientifically optimized drug formulations.

Pharma Excipients: Wow. Sounds impressive. Who had the first idea for the development of ZoomLab, and when was this?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: I would say the idea goes back to a workshop in 2017. During this workshop, we thought about different ways of making our customers’ lives easier, and the outcomes of this process of this workshop are our three virtual pharma assistants, MyProductWorld, RegXcellence, and ZoomLab.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. So there have been brothers and sisters for ZoomLab?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: ZoomLab has brothers and sisters. MyProductWorld is, I would say, something like an online product catalog where you can find some technical information about our products. You can also order samples in order to test our products. And then RegXcellence, this is our quality and regulatory portal.

Pharma Excipients: I see. So from 2017, how long did the development of the first version of ZoomLab take?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: We needed about one year to develop the algorithms and sketch all the user stories. Programming of the software was much faster, and this was finished in about six months.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. So one and a half years altogether?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: One and a half years altogether, exactly.

Pharma Excipients: Sketching the concept took longer, with all the user stories than real programming?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yeah. We had to develop the concept, and then, of course, you know, we also had to develop the scientific algorithms which are behind the user interface behind the surface, yeah? And this, of course, took quite some time.

Pharma Excipients: This “scientific algorithm” is obviously a nice keyword for me. What is behind this scientific algorithm?


Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yes, the software, ZoomLab, is built on the manufacturing classification system, which is basically a tool for formulation scientists to rank the feasibility of different processing routes for oral solid dosage forms. And ZoomLab also relies on other scientific publications, for example, for estimating the tabletability of powder blends. So that means we didn’t reinvent the wheel here. We more or less rely on scientific publications that are already available.

Pharma Excipients: Sounds really interesting, the algorithms behind it. What have been the first elements of the first version of ZoomLab? What did you start with?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: In November 2019 when we first published our tool, we basically had three main functions or main features. One feature is called “processability of active ingredient,” and this tool basically performs risk analysis and recommends the best processing route for a given drug molecule.
Another tool is called “processability of powder blend,” and this function or this module predicts the properties of drug excipient combinations. So it basically helps you to identify the most suitable excipient for a given drug molecule, or it can also be used to optimize an existing drug formulation.
And then, of course, we have our Formulation Wizard. This is, I would say, a very user-friendly, easy-to-use way for identifying the best drug excipient combinations. This tool really calculates a complete starting formulation based on the selected dosage form, the properties of the drug molecule, and the defined target profile.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. You just named and explained shortly the three elements at the start of ZoomLab™. About how many major elements and functions we are talking now as half a year passed by?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: So since last November, we have published four updates. The first update was published in January. This version came with a freshly defined user interface. In version 1.2, this was published in February, we introduced our content uniformity check. This is a tool that helps you to set the right particle size specifications for your drug molecule.

And then in the next update, this was our version 1.3. We updated our excipient database, so we now have the possibility to compare different excipients from our database, and we also updated our formulation database. So we now have more than 150 drug formulations available in our database.  And then in our latest update (version 1.4), we introduced our incompatibility check. This tool allows you to check for potential incompatibilities between your drug molecule and the excipients.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. I think we will talk a little bit later on the next steps and what is there in the foreseeable future. Where do you see key advantages for a formulator using ZoomLab?


Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: I would say one of the most important advantages or the most important benefits of ZoomLab is that this tool is really available 24/7 and it gives you answers in no time.  I mean, many other simulation or prediction tools take a significant amount of time in order to run the simulations or to run the predictions. With ZoomLab, it’s different because you log in to the system and you get your answers immediately.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl, BASF ZoomLab™:
I would say one of the most important advantages or the most important benefits of ZoomLab™ is that this tool is really available 24/7 and it gives you answers in no time.

Another advantage is that ZoomLab helps reducing the number of time-consuming lab experiments by guiding the user to a scientifically optimized starting formulation. This is also quite important. And at the end, ZoomLab helps avoiding the expensive trial and error by considering different aspects such as the particle size distribution of the API, for example. The particle size distribution is extremely important because it can affect, of course, the content uniformity of the produced tablets.

Another advantage is, and this is particularly important for our customers from the pharmaceutical industry, that the formulator is not required to disclose the name of the drug molecule or the chemical structure of the drug. So it’s fully sufficient if you enter some key parameters of the drug that describe, for example, the particle size distribution, the flowability of the powder, the tabletability of the powder, and with these parameters, ZoomLab can run the predictions. It it’s not necessary to reveal any details of the drug molecule. And also, very important, the development is fully in line with the quality by design concept. And another advantage, we offer this software tool for free.

Pharma Excipients: Yes. That’s obviously an advantage. I think it was the second claim you just mentioned, “the starting formulation is optimized”. What do you mean by that exactly?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yes. Starting formulation means that ZoomLab’s formulation output is most likely not the final drug formulation a pharmaceutical company will end up producing. So I always compare ZoomLab to a navigation system in your car. The navigation system shows you the right way, but it doesn’t do the driving, right, and ZoomLab operates in a very similar way. ZoomLab can assist formulators in making better decisions, but it does not replace the formulator, yeah? So ZoomLab can show you which experiments to do, it can show you what ideal drug excipient combinations could be, but the ultimate formulation work still needs to be done by humans. So we cannot replace the formulator. This is not possible, and this is also not our goal.

Pharma Excipients: It’s not your aim right now, at least. (smiles)

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Right now, at least. Yeah, maybe in a few years, this would be possible, but right now I would say no software algorithm can replace the human formulator with all his intuition and experience.

Pharma Excipients: Experience, yeah. How does this Formulation Wizard actually work and exactly? I mean, does it have steps, or how does it work?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: So this Formulation Wizard guides the user to a formulation in six different steps. In the first step, you need to select the dosage form, and the first version of our wizard supports the development of conventional uncoated tablets. In the future, of course, we will add support also for different dosage forms and different processing technologies. Then in the second step, you need to define a target profile. That means you have to enter the dose of the active ingredient. You can also enter the desired tensile strengths of your tablets and also the maximum allowed compaction pressure.

And then in the third step, I already mentioned this, you have to enter some key parameters of the drug molecule, these are all characteristics that describe, for example, the particle size distribution of the drug, the flowability, the tabletability, and so on. And there are two different possibilities. You can either enter these parameters directly by filling out the form, or you can choose one of the active ingredients from our database and load the properties from the database. In this way, you don’t have to do any experiments at all.

Then in the fourth step, you can either include or exclude certain excipients. For example, if you don’t want to have lactose in your formulation, you can basically exclude all excipients that are based on lactose. But, typically, we would recommend you to include as many excipients as possible because, at the end of the day, you want to  find the optimum, the best drug excipient combination.

And in the last step or almost the last step, ZoomLab tests all possible drug excipient combinations, so the processability of these combinations is predicted. And ZoomLab can identify what the best excipient or excipient combination for your particular drug molecule would be. And based on this excipient, ZoomLab can then calculate a complete starting formulation including a superdisintegrant and lubricant, and this also comes along with some detailed manufacturing instructions and tips for troubleshooting.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. You mentioned lactose. Another example, if I don’t want to use titanium dioxide, is that also possible that I just say, “Okay, leave that out?”

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Well – you know, when we talk about tablet core formulations, these core formulation – they don’t contain titanium dioxide. It’s different when you talk about formulations for tablet coatings. These formulations contain titanium dioxide right now because there is simply no replacement at the moment. But in the tablet core, we don’t have titanium dioxide included.

Pharma Excipients: Ah, I see. Okay. The coating question we are speaking about also later on.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yes.

Pharma Excipients: What do you say when someone articulates a sentence like, “This is only to sell BASF excipients. Other suppliers will not be mentioned fairly.”

Dr. Ferdinand BrandlI would always recommend to try out ZoomLab because then you will realize that this is simply not true, and I can also tell you why. First of all, ZoomLab gives you access to dozens of possible excipients, not only BASF products. So we have also included microcrystalline cellulose, for example, and this excipient is not available from BASF. I mean, of course, we know that you cannot do your formulation work without MCC, therefore, we have included MCC.

And – I’d like to emphasize this again. Our algorithms are based on scientific publications, which means that the formulation outcome is dictated by science, not marketing, right? And, in fact, when you try out ZoomLab, you will notice that BASF excipients are not necessarily on top of the list of recommended excipients.  In some cases, they are somewhere in the middle because other excipients simply perform better, and then, of course, we recommend those excipients.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. So, basically, your recommendation is: Try it out? Have a look yourselves?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yup.

Pharma Excipients: Perfect. You told us a bit about which areas and which topics ZoomLab already covers. What we will see about in the next, like, one and a half, two years? What are you working on? What are you planning to do?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: So, right now, ZoomLab is focused on oral solid dosage forms, like, all different kinds of tablets. In the future, the next one to two years, of course, we will add support for additional tablet formulations like ODTs, for example. We will also introduce support for additional manufacturing technologies like wet granulation and dry granulation. And we will also introduce additional features for topical dosage forms such as creams and ointments, for example. And this is also, I think, quite exciting, we are also working on features or functions for sustained-release formulations and some algorithms for poorly soluble drug molecules. So it will also be possible to deal with these components (also in ZoomLab).

Pharma Excipients: I see. And I think I’ve heard something that you are also developing an enteric coating module. So, again, a question on coating, which we just touched briefly. Did I hear that right?


Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yeah, this is right. So this coating module will be released in September, and it’s our first module related to coatings. There are many more modules to come in the future like colored, instant-release coatings, protective coatings, and so on, sustained-release coatings, but we will start with this module featuring the enteric release coatings.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. So in September, we will see more of that?

On the 24th of September
we will have a webinar with BASF
about the newest version of BASF ZoomLab™.
They will present the new enteric coating module and more interesting features and news of ZoomLab™.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Exactly. And I can also tell you a little bit more about this [enteric coating] module. I guess this is also interesting for the audience. We have decided to develop this module as many of our customers have difficulties calculating their coating formulations. And if you ask me, this is also one of the reasons why ready-to-use formulations are so popular, right, because you don’t have to deal with the calculations with the actual formulation work.  And we have developed it now because ZoomLab already covers the tablet core formulations and we thought it’s the next step that you’d follow to cover also the coating formulations. And, in addition, I would say it also fits perfectly to our excipient portfolio because we have those, we have the excipients for the core formulation and also, of course, all the polymers that you need in order to do the coatings.

Pharma Excipients: Yeah. Absolutely. If I ask you which function or element makes you proud the most right now, what would you answer?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: So I would answer it’s probably the whole user experience that we were able to realize. I mean, look, ZoomLab gives you access to complex mathematical modules without you entering any mathematical equations or doing any calculations. And this is really, I would say, exciting. You can run, you can use those models without really dealing with the math behind it.

Pharma Excipients: That is impressive, absolutely. And (good) usability is always a difficult thing. I have some idea about that. Can you give me any idea how many formulation scientists all over the world are already using ZoomLab?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yeah, so I looked this number up today because I was expecting a question like this, and, currently, we have around 500 verified users.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. And is there a regional difference in the usage or is it all over the world?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: So we have rolled out this tool globally, but, interestingly, most of our users are from Asia and Europe right now.

Pharma Excipients: Okay. And it’s basically India?…oh, it’s Europe, it’s not U.S.? Okay. (surprised)

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Yeah. It’s, interestingly, European Union, the rest of Europe, of course, and all the…I mean, this also includes Africa, yeah, and all the Asian countries, yeah.

Pharma Excipients: Is India included in this?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Exactly. Yes.

If I ask you which ZoomLab™ function or element makes you proud the mostright now,
what would you answer?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: So I would answer it’s probably the whole user experience that we were able to realize. I mean, ZoomLab gives you access to complex mathematical modules without you entering any mathematical equations or doing any calculations.

Pharma Excipients: I would have expected India and the U.S., and then other countries. That´s interesting. So you told us a little bit about the next one and a half year. We know that there’s enteric coating [module] in September 2020. What would be the next one afterwards?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: As I’ve mentioned, we are already working on modules, on functions for wet and dry granulation. That means we will add support for additional dosage forms to our Formulation Wizard.

We will also provide features in the future for sustained-release formulations and poorly soluble drug molecules. So the whole area of solubilization and hot melt extrusions this will also be addressed in ZoomLab. And then this is also quite exciting, I would say, we are also working with our partners on expanding the number of available ingredients. We will work together with excipient suppliers and also API manufacturers to increase the number of compounds which are in ZoomLab’s database, and this will also give you and our users access to different drug molecules and additional excipient chemistries.

Pharma Excipients: This sounds really interesting. As you said, you want to broaden the horizon of dosage forms. When do you think you will cover more or less the classical dosage forms, including topical, including other than normal tablets ?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: I think that within the next two years, we should be able to offer solutions for all of these dosage forms. But, of course, the development of ZoomLab will not be finished by then. This development will continue over the next few years and ZoomLab will further evolve, and we will also  release updates on a regular basis.

Pharma Excipients: Sounds really, really interesting, and there’s a lot of things you have on your plan. I’m impressed.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl Yes.

Pharma Excipients: So now, let´s have a look for the incompatibility check, I think that’s the one you released last. And, obviously, besides all the other interesting elements, the enteric coating in September (will be) the next thing, which is worth for someone to register for ZoomLab.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: I think it’s always worth to register for ZoomLab. And, you know, I would also recommend to log into ZoomLab on a regular basis and not only when you have a specific question in your mind because, as I’ve mentioned, we publish regular updates. Updates are coming every one to two months. We are also constantly increasing the number of database entries in our excipient database and our formulation database, but I think it’s always, yeah, worthwhile to look into ZoomLab and check out what’s new.

Pharma Excipients: Absolutely. I think so too. Thank you very much, Ferdinand.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: You’re welcome.

Pharma Excipients: It was a pleasure. Any last words? Anything you want to tell our viewers?

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: Well, I would say that ZoomLab is probably not the solution to everything, but I’m pretty sure that it can really save you some time and money.

Pharma Excipients: Which is, obviously, absolutely worthwhile and recommendable. Thank you very much for your time and interesting answers to all the questions.

Dr. Ferdinand Brandl: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Interested to see other resources on ZoomLab™?

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