Automate to Market
Scientists-turned-entrepreneurs give their tips on creating an automated lab tool—and profiting from the fruits of their labors
Automation is an area where life scientists often see opportunities for innovation; doing the same technique day in and day out unsurprisingly brings to mind ways to ease and speed the process. If you’ve invented an automated tool, colleagues in other labs could very likely benefit from your ingenuity. But if you’ve ever dreamt of seeing your invention in a product catalog, you’d best keep in mind that taking your tool to market is rarely simple.
Indeed, developing a good tool and a good product can seem like an uphill battle. Some areas of lab automation are dominated by big companies; amid that kind of competition, newcomers may need to drop their price. To create and sell a product, you’ll also probably have to stretch outside your scientific comfort zone. Commercializing a product is a multi-step process, from the legwork of tuning and tweaking a complex prototype of moving parts, to the back-and-forth dialogue with potential users and customers, the intimate knowledge of your market and how it might change, and the sales pitch to people you don’t know.
“Before people start spending money on [developing] a product, we want them to think about the value chain and how the industry ecosystem is organized,” says Veronika Litinski, health-care and life sciences practice lead at the MaRS Centre, a Toronto-based innovation cluster that engages researchers in commercializing their inventions. “If some market seems available, you have to understand why.” For example, it could be that the niche is too difficult to fill using the technologies currently available or that the solutions available are too expensive or difficult to operate. The only way to know is by asking questions.
The Scientist spoke with researchers who are automating and commercializing the latest technologies to aid life science work. Here are their thoughts for getting over the hurdles:
Scientist: Ameer Taha, founder, Certo Labs, Toronto
Product: Certo-Ex, an automated system that homogenizes and extracts chemicals from animal tissue and food
Status: Recently tested a proof-of-concept prototype and currently developing the first market-ready product
The story: As a master’s student in nutrition, Taha spent a lot of time grinding and extracting nutrients from rat tissues. Inspired to design an instrument that would automate this process, he formed a partnership with his brother, Ahmed, then an undergraduate pharmacology student who had won several business plan competitions. Later, through their interactions with MaRS, they were introduced to and formed a partnership with industrial designer Lahav Gil of Toronto-based Kangaroo Design & Innovation.
The struggle: Automating a process doesn’t in itself guarantee that you’ll gain in throughput, Ameer says. “What ended up happening was, we tried running some samples with the semiautomated machine that we had initially, but we didn't save much time," he recalls. "We had to come up with a novel way to make the chemistry more efficient."
Using a grant awarded from the Ontario Centers of Excellence, Ameer and Gil went back to work on the design. Ameer worked with collaborators at the University of Waterloo to simplify the chemistry involved in extracting nutrients and toxins from the samples. Gil developed an autohomogenizer that streamlines the steps from grinding to cleaning. The group soon filed for a patent that allows them to extract chemicals at least eight times quicker than conventional methods at a fraction of the cost.
Considerations: "The real successful products tend to start in niches, where the customer pain is significant," says Litinski, who helped Ameer's team gather market research. "So for example, when you're talking about sample prep of solid materials that require extraction, it's a very laborintensive process."
Still, even though they knew they had hit a niche, the group worked for more than 6 months to identify potential customers and their needs. It took them more than a dozen informational interviews to "paint a more refined picture of where the gaps really are," Litinski says.
Cost: $500,000 thus far to develop the product
Scientist: Neil Benn, CEO , Ziath Ltd, Cambridge, UK
Products: Automated 2D barcode scanners and software, to keep track of large volumes of samples in drug discovery and clinical applications
Status: Selling and expanding product line
The story: Benn had 15 years of experience working in large and small biotech companies, tending large machines and writing software used to process millions of experimental samples. He and his colleague Tim Dilks decided that there had to be an easier way to keep track of all the racks of tubes, so they created a system that scans them.
The struggle: Benn had no experience in sales or marketing, but early on, he and Dilks took their products to conferences to meet and talk with potential customers. At the time, they figured that since they were already in the business, they knew what customers will need. Looking for more detailed information on how to break into new markets, they eventually partnered with a sales and marketing specialist.
That person also gave Benn a lesson that he didn't expect: how to sell. What he's learned is, keep it simple. "If you have your own thing that you produce, then you're naturally very proud of it," he recalls. "I was like a 5-year-old with a Christmas present." To which the specialist told him, "It's great that you're passionate, but you're confusing the customer when you tell them about the small things you're doing to make it really good." Enthusiasm about your product will be appreciated, but stick with the product details that are most relevant to the customer, Benn adds.
Considerations: If you don't have an intimate knowledge of what the customer wants, or you don't enjoy talking with people to find out, then you should hire a sales and marketing specialist sooner rather than later, Benn says. Above all, let people know that the product exists and how its advantages fit with the customer's processes. "That's one lesson I didn't do at first."
Cost: About £30,000 ($50,000 USD) spent over two years, to start up the business and develop a prototype
Scientist: David Beebe, biomedical engineer, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Products: the iuvo Chemotaxis Array and the iuvo Single Array formatted for cell invasion assays, for use with existing automated liquid handlers or handheld pipetters
Status: Partnered with BellBrook Labs; arrays currently in field testing
The story: In 2001, one of Beebe's graduate students was pipetting tiny droplets containing cells onto a microfluidic chip he had made. When he completely missed one of the wells, the drop of fluid diffused into its correct location via a surface tensioninduced pressure, surprising everyone in the lab. Rather than jamming a pipette into the tiny wells, they realized, they could harness passive diffusion. "At the time, we knew that we'd stumbled onto this elegant way to pump fluid," Beebe recalls.
The struggle: Although the initial discovery was lucky, transforming even the simplest microfluidics tools into commercial products for drug development is tricky, says Beebe. The original prototype was made of a silicon rubber that absorbs drugs, so it would not have been useful for drug screening assays. Researchers from Wisconsinbased BellBrook Labs led the development using standard cell-culture plastics. But creating microscale impressions on the plastics, while maintaining clarity and flatness, was a challenge that added 18 months to the process, says Steve Hayes, BellBrook's director of research and development. "In the end, it involved a large infrastructure and new tools for forming plastics," he says. The benefit is that the resulting array is simple and requires no moving parts.
Considerations: Learn about the existing market and what you'll have to compete against. Sometimes those areas are moving targets, Beebe says. For example, since the microfluidics technologies took off a decade ago, cell-culture plates have improved substantially, from 24-well plates to 384 wells and beyond. That means it will be more difficult to market a product based on the argument that microfluidics devices will use smaller volumes, he adds.
Cost: The arrays will be sold for $200- $300 each.
Scientist: Yu Sun, founder, Marksman Cellject, Toronto
Product: Model ZeF 701, an automated tool for cell and embryo microinjection and manipulation
Status: Prototype in on-site trial in a clinic using patient samples
The Story: Ten years ago, engineer Yu Sun started working to create a system that would reliably inject cells or embryos with DNA, RNA, and sperm. It's a finicky technique; to learn how to do this by hand, researchers typically train for at least one year, and many never develop a good hit rate.
The struggle: A common pitfall for researchers is realizing the vast gulf between a prototype and a fully tested product, Sun says. "It's not only about [tweaking computer] code or beautifying your system"— it's about user-oriented design and testing, he says. Sun in particular needed to see whether the automation reliably served the needs of two very different end users: research laboratories doing basic science and hospitals doing in vitro fertilization.
For both sets of users, testing should start during product development, and developers should regularly interact with users. It's not enough to interview them, Sun insists: "Observe them, and pay attention to the details of what they're doing, and then do what they're doing," he says—that way, you can understand the physical process a human must go through to perform the task at hand, and where your tool fits in.
Research laboratories tend to have a more varied set of experimental conditions and needs, whereas hospitals and clinics usually want a consistent and standardized system. Sun says he has met several clinicians who are interested in purchasing the system to use it for in vitro fertilization, provided the trials produce good data. "Your future customers will never really care or have the guts to adopt your system until they see the data, under real conditions," he says.
Considerations: When considering a clinical setting as a market for your product, take time early in the process to understand the stringent regulations set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other agencies. Marksman Cellject hired two consultants to help navigate these regulations.
Cost: The company plans to sell the system for $190,000 and make it available for lease for $40,000.