Let a thousand foundries bloom: Opentrons' lab of the future

Emerging Technologies
March 27, 2018

Opentrons’ latest feat brings lab automation to everyone’s bench topThis article is brought to you by our sponsor, Opentrons“The lean biotech startup is possible now.”So says Vinod Khosla about OT-2, Opentrons’ lab robot. As Silicon Valley’s biggest name in green tech investing, he might know what he’s talking about. Khosla and other high-flying biotech investors are betting that Opentrons will bring affordable lab automation to any biologist for the first time in history. The OT-2 is the product of $10M in seed funding aimed at making personal lab robots a reality.“Three out of four of our customers have never had a lab robot before,” says Will Canine, Opentrons’ Co-Founder and CPO. That’s interesting given that Opentrons already has a considerable user base. Seven of the top ten big pharma companies run its first-generation robot, as do most of of the top biology research universities. With this latest version of their product, for $4,000, anyone with a PC can easily design and run sophisticated automated protocols in their lab.“The OT-2 is an ‘Apple II’ moment for lab automation,” says Canine, “a personal lab robot that any bench scientist can use themselves, the first PC of bio robotics.”In particular, OT-2’s designers aimed to reduce or completely eliminate the computer programming typically needed by today’s mainframe-oriented solutions. The robot ships with Opentrons’ new no-code Protocol Designer, an intuitive visual design program that allows biologists to easily create and customize protocols for OT-2 without writing code. “We want to give researchers the same kind of user experience that they have come to expect from consumer devices like smartphones,” Canine says.In Opentrons’ promo video for the OT-2, a lab researcher points and clicks on her laptop to create a new experimental design using intuitive, visually descriptive icons.

While there’s been much excitement around cloud labs and foundries these days, Canine and the Opentrons team view cloud labs as an increment in the trend toward lab centralization that has been happening since biotech began. “It’s basically adding a software layer on top of traditional CROs,” Canine says, “which are already very automated.” He hopes that Opentrons can be a part of bringing lab automation costs down so centralized foundries can afford to lower their prices and make their services more accessible.“Rather than continuing the trend of centralization, we should be reversing it -- decentralizing,” Canine continues.“Opentrons is demonstrating that open and affordable hardware can also be the best in terms of performance and engineering,” said Drew Endy, Professor of Biological Engineering at Stanford University. His lab was an early adopter and beta tester of OT-2. “For us, the OT-2 means that anyone who can afford a laptop computer can also establish an open biofoundry.”Opentrons traces its roots to Genspace, the Brooklyn community biohacker space. While working there, Canine met his co-founder Chiu Chau on the DIY biology listserv. They founded Opentrons soon after and have been focused on grassroots, “bottom-up” biotech empowerment ever since. “Biotechnology can solve some of the world’s biggest problems -- it’s probably the only tech that can actually save the world right now. But not enough people have access to the tools needed to work with it. That’s what we aim to change.”Besides cost savings, this little robot comes packed with a library of verified protocols developed by hundreds of scientists from across the scientific community. The open API allows users to customize the robot for their own needs. It can integrate with microscopes, computer vision, and even Amazon Alexa.

“We’ve learned so much from our customers about what biologists need, and that’s why we built OT-2 to be affordable, easy-to-use, and reliable,” Canine says. He hopes that OT-2 will not just make scientists’ lives easier, but also speed scientific discovery.That’s a big idea for a little robot.Will Canine will be speaking at SynBioBeta 2018, The Global Synthetic Biology Summit, in San Francisco on October 1–3 (part of Synthetic Biology Week). Register by April 6th to get an early bird ticket.

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