Opentrons at SynBioBeta London 2017

This is a transcript of Kristin Ellis's talk at SynBioBeta London 2017. At Opentrons, we make robots for biologists. Our $5,000 personal pipetting robot is an affordable and collaborative platform for automation. We have an amazing community of users who have developed new software integrations, hardware tools, reagent kits,

This is a transcript of Kristin Ellis's talk at SynBioBeta London 2017.


At Opentrons, we make robots for biologists.

Our $5,000 personal pipetting robot is an affordable and collaborative platform for automation. We have an amazing community of users who have developed new software integrations, hardware tools, reagent kits, and protocols that are open-source and available for anyone to use.

We all know biotech is the most powerful and fastest-growing technology sector, and it’s enabling us to build more sophisticated biological tools than ever before. However, there’s often still a gap between our biological tools and our lab tools.

On one hand, we’re building organisms from scratch and we're printing synthetic DNA. On the other hand, scientists are still using technology that was patented in the 1950s to do anything with it.

Pipettes still work, of course, but when we’re doing repetitive tasks by hand we don’t make as much use of the best thing about us - our brains.

Speaking of brains, the old adage “two heads are better than one” is never more true or apparent than it is in the world of biology. We need tools like Opentrons that are both accessible and collaborative for people to truly take advantage of new biotech.

Many of us in this room make a living by asking questions and seeking answers. Well, at Opentrons we asked ourselves this:

What happens when you give scientists access to affordable, flexible, open-source automation tools and smart lab modules? What does it look like to have personal robots in the lab?

We’re beginning to see the answer to that question take shape in an incredible and sometimes entertaining way.

That’s one of my favorite clips. It was sent to us by students at Aarhus University in Denmark. We’re now in 50 countries and have more than 1,000 robots hard at work at every level of science, from prestigious academic institutions (like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT), to scrappy biotech startups (including some in this room), to big pharma firms, accelerators, incubators and community hackerspaces.

For the rest of my talk I’m going to focus on a few particular stories from our community of users that illustrate how our robots are unleashing the next wave of collaboration and innovation in biotechnology.

This is Tiffany from Amir Mitchell’s lab at the UMass Medical School. They’re studying cell regulation in dynamically changing environments to better model the true context of health and disease. While we know a lot about particular snapshots in cell signaling pathways, we know less about how they behave over time - say, in response to changing therapy or disease states.

Those of you who have worked with experiments that require multiple time-sensitive measurements know it’s a pain to dose and take snapshots of your cells every 30 minutes for 12 hours. Experiments like these are much better enabled and executed through the use of automation, and that’s where we’re able to help.

Using our open-source platform and their own prototyping and engineering ingenuity, the Mitchell lab has created a suite of smart modules to help them map the time - dependent behaviors of biological circuits.

They’ve integrated a DIY cell warmer, an LED optogenetics module and more to not only study existing networks, but also to compare them with alternative circuits that they design and construct in their lab using the tools of synthetic biology.

These helpful hardware modules can be designed, prototyped, tested, and seamlessly integrated into the Opentrons platform and API in mere weeks - a whole automated system for less than the cost of one thermal cycler.

Now, you might be thinking, “That’s really affordable and cool, but what about the average user who doesn’t have access to a designated lab engineer and a makerspace?”

That’s where someone like Elaine fits in.

SLIDE - Elaine at Biomarin.jpg

Elaine is a scientist working in drug discovery research at Biomarin Pharmaceuticals. She’s a biology veteran who’s spent the last decade pipetting and working in protein biochemistry, and refers to her OT-One PRO as her personal lab assistant. She’s using it primarily to run quanitification assays on E. coli protein fractions, freeing up her time to read papers and design better downstream experiments.

It wasn’t the most familiar thing for her at the beginning. Elaine had always pipetted her own experiments, and had never imagined having access to a tool like Opentrons. She started with no background in programming, prototyping, or automation, and though we started by programming her workflows for her, she’s now coding her own experiments. She even convinced her department to buy a 3D printer and is designing mounts for her own pipettes.

Most importantly for Elaine herself, she developed a protocol to automate the Bradford assay she runs daily, and scientifically validated it. You can see this standard curve that she generated using her robot - it’s simple, but it represents just one dataset of many.

The best part is, her work benefits the entire Opentrons community. Her workflow is now on our Protocol Library and anyone can use it. It’s as simple as downloading the protocol, loading your deck, and hitting run.

That is the power of open access to affordable automation - it enables people like Elaine to go from 0 knowledge of automation to contributing back the community.

We just published a story about Elaine on our blog at, so if you’d like to learn more, please go check it out!

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to talk about all of our awesome community partners like DFCI, Twist Bioscience, and countless others, so I want to highlight just one more group that’s building new capabilities on top of our platform.

Take a few seconds to watch this video.

That was prototyped in an afternoon by Anton Jackson-Smith, a graduate student in Drew Endy's lab at Stanford. That’s the power of an open-source platform. Anyone with some programming skills can build whatever new features they dream up - including telling to their personal lab robot to do their benchwork with a voice command.

The advancement of science is irrevocably linked to the creation of better tools for the people making the discoveries, and we’re passionate about providing those tools.

What I’ve shown you today is still just the beginning. More biologists like Elaine are getting started on Opentrons every day, learning the basics of automation to save themselves from hours of pipetting. And bio-engineers like Amir and Anton are building incredible products that serve their community’s particular needs.

Opentron’s mission is to connect these labs and share these community-driven developments with anyone who wants them. We have the power to promote and enable the kind of active scientific literacy and collaboration this community has always dreamed of.

Take a minute to ask yourself -- what might you automate in your lab? What would you do with the extra time not spent pipetting every week? Who would you want to work with? What do you want to share with the rest of the synbio community? If you want to hear one of our 197 other user stories or talk about how you can automate your workflows with Opentrons, come talk to me! Thank you.