The world’s labs are under pressure to run more tests and process more materials, not just because of COVID but due to the growing biotech and drug development sectors — and automation is the sure way forward. Automata, which started by creating a robotic arm to perform individual tasks, has now raised $50 million to automate entire lab processes from start to finish.
When we last spoke to Automata in 2019, the company had just raised a $7.4 million round and was focusing on developing and deploying its Eva robotic arm, which could be used for a variety of common tasks. : move glass, run simple samples, that sort of thing. But they soon discovered that living as a robot supplier for small, highly individual projects and labs was not a viable business model.
“It’s not enough to engage with your customer all at once – like ‘here’s the most affordable robotic arm on the market, good luck!’ When companies buy one or two robots, it optimizes a few processes, but it doesn’t change how that company works, so in recent years we’ve been looking at how we can drive adoption of our technology at a scale that matters,” said co-founder and CEO Mostafa ElSayed.
They identified three major markets that they believe were on the brink of an automation boom: diagnostics, drug discovery, and synthetic biology (ie, the discovery and cultivation of purpose-built microbes).
What the company discovered when it installed the first few hundred of its Eva arms was that companies in these industries had a lot of “partial automation.” ElSayed compared this to a dishwasher in your kitchen: you no longer have to wash dishes by hand, but you still have to load and unload them, add soap, select the settings, etc. Handy but it still completely depends of human labour.
The limits of partial automation were emphasized during the pandemic, when especially laboratories performing PCR tests were operating at maximum capacity and were far from meeting demand. Similarly in drug development and synthetic biologics, timelines extend to the 5-7 year range for certain processes as there is a hard limit on how many times a particular process can be run. By moving from partial to full automation, huge time savings and throughput increases can be achieved. But that was not possible with a handful of robotic arms.
“We had to build a brand new hardware stack that enables this kind of automation,” ElSayed said. Late last year, they announced their new hardware platform, Automata Labs, a sort of modular container built for continuous operation of machines inside and the ability to pass the results to the next step. “The benchtop is really the standard unit of all labs, so it’s basically an entire lab bench that’s amenable to automation.”
The company’s most visible success is an NHS testing facility that is as automated as is currently possible (i.e. people are still there, but much of the work is done robotics), and now has more than a million samples processed. ElSayed pointed out that the number is great, but more importantly, the automation cut results turnaround times in half, which, as you might imagine, is crucial for time-sensitive testing. This is largely because the level of automation allows clinicians to put the robots to work overnight and have the results ready in the morning.
In experimental settings, timelines can be shortened by 25-40 percent, which is significant, but may sound modest to anyone who has read of orders of magnitude productivity gains in sectors such as manufacturing. ElSayed said there are other avenues to further improve that particular number, such as the “lights out labs” that made the NHS fast labs possible.
But he noted that for many researchers there is also a great need for accuracy and repeatability.
“There was a clear, writable need for those user groups,” he said. “There’s the basic principle of increasing throughput and decreasing mundane tasks in a lab… but there was also, and we didn’t know this was going to happen, a repeatability issue in labs. Teams published their own research papers, then tried to replicate the results and failed because the processes in the lab were highly manual and variable.”
So a big part of the appeal of automation is systematic tracking and performance, and fewer errors. To that end, Automata has invested in the software to manage and manage its labware and robots.
“The scientists in these organizations — especially their automation scientists, this emerging role — what they really want is the ability to program these systems themselves and design these screenings themselves, rather than hire us,” says ElSayed. As anyone who has negotiated with scientists before probably knows, many would rather keep doing things the old way rather than handing over control to an outside agency. So building a system designed to be deployed and modified by the crew on site was a major focus.
“More and more labs using our hardware are coming to us for these digital solutions to configure or deploy them, or connect the ecosystem to their data system,” he continued.
A new generation of hardware, in limited testing with partners, will be unveiled later this year, and Automata is also gearing up to make the jump to the US and wider European markets. The sheer volume of recruiting, manufacturing, sales, support, and so on required by this expansion is why the company raised this $50MB round. The round was led by Octopus Ventures, with participation from Hummingbird, Latitude Ventures, ABB Technology Ventures, Isomer Capital, In-Q-Tel and others.