This Cheap Robot Does Boring Lab Work, So Scientists Can Use Their Time For Discoveries

At big labs, robots perform the menial tasks of science. The $3,000 OT-One makes that possible for small-time researchers, so they can move more quickly toward big discoveries.

One recent rainswept Brooklyn day, Will Canine was standing beside the OT-One, a machine his partner Chiu Chau hacked together from 3D-printer components. A desktop robot for biotech research, the OT-One automates lab processes including the notoriously boring job of pipetting–the meticulous job of dropping chemicals and solutions from one test tube to another to perform tests. As Canine talks, an arm goes up and down and side to side, unceasingly and perfectly.


“We’re really trying to trim down the excess fat from the biotech industry and provide every life scientist with an accessible automation solution,” he says.

Automated pipetting machines have been around for a while, but not in this price-bracket. The OT-One–first developed at Genspace, a maker lab for bio-technologists in Brooklyn–costs just $3,000, compared to the normal $100,000. OpenTrons, Canine’s company, has sold 150 units so far, including to groups at the Mayo Clinic, Stanford, Harvard, and several startups. Monthly sales have doubled since it received $2 million in venture funding from Khosla Ventures and some Chinese investors this year.

“Releasing people’s brains to work on actual science as opposed to manual labor is the biggest win we can possibly have,” Canine says. “One of the main problems in life science is that brilliant people spend time doing manual work. They’re thinking about where samples are stored, which well it’s going to go in. Those are great things for robots to worry about.”

The motorized arm of the OT-One moves according to a prescribed recipe, or protocol, that you download ahead of time. The Opentrons library contains dozens of protocols, ranging from tests for STDs to gene editing techniques. It’s basically set-up-and-go: once you’ve got the pipettes and samples in the right place, the machine will mix, separate, cool and heat following whatever instructions it’s been given. Sometimes the arm will move back and forth for several hours.

Opentrons has also built an API that connects the OT-One to other software tools and lab equipment including robotic magnetic platforms, microscopes, and bioreactors. The vision is to automate the lab-bench and for Opentrons to be a platform as much as a single machine. The open source-ness of the system means anyone can adapt it and build upon it. Already, a Mayo spinout, Lifeengine Technologies, has developed gene editing and genotyping applications. And a company in London, Helix Works, uses it to store data as DNA.

Canine believes in democratizing biotech to everyone, to increase the odds of new inventions coming about. “The means of producing biotech are closed by [intellectual property laws] and giant corporate interests,” he says. “The market is broken and empowering more people to fix it is the only way we’re going to get anywhere.”


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.