As the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on, stay-at-home orders around the world have affected large swaths of societies. Children have been stuck at home as schools close down; office workers find themselves working remotely while companies of all stripes and sizes shut down for the time being. Academics find themselves in the same boat, as universities across the globe send students and faculty back home for the year.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that scientific research has ground to a halt. On the contrary, researchers who are accustomed to the traditional laboratory environment — working with microscopes and bacterial cultures — may have a promising work-from-home alternative: cloud-based laboratories, all operated by robots.
One such startup that is stepping up to the challenge of doing research work remotely is San Francisco-based Strateos. For the last few years, it has been offering what it calls “robotic cloud laboratories” — essentially, an automated service that can be accessed remotely, thus allowing scientists who are doing biological research to work from home. In the near future, there are plans to expand the service to include the equipment needed for synthesizing new chemical compounds as well.
According to the company, Strateos’ service combines automation with advanced software for imaging and analytics and was recently formed out of a merger of Transcriptic, a robotic cloud laboratory for the life sciences, and 3Scan, a company that creates 3D digital models out of tissue sample scans. Strateos also recently partnered with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly with the aim of leveraging its robotic lab modules to create an automated drug discovery platform.
“Fully Automated and Programmable”
To use Strateos’ service, users start with sending an intake kit that’s provided by the company, so that researchers’ samples are sent in standardized containers that are labeled with the company’s web-based labeling system. Using Strateos’ online interface, scientists can then select which tests they want to run on the samples they send in. It’s also relatively affordable, as users only pay for the tests they order.
“Our approach is fully automated and programmable,” as Strateos CEO Mark Fischer-Colbrie told IEEE Spectrum. “That means that scientists can pick a standard workflow, or decide how a workflow is run. All the pieces of equipment, which include acoustic liquid handlers, spectrophotometers, real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction instruments, and flow cytometers are accessible. The scientists can define every step of the experiment with various parameters, for example, how long the robot incubates a sample and whether it does it fast or slow.”
Strateos’ labs consist of “containerized robotic work cells” that are all connected by control software, creating an architecture that is both flexible and scalable. For instance, if a researcher needs to have his or her samples processed in a quicker timeframe, the control software will dynamically delegate more robotic resources and reagents toward that job. Each work cell is regularly maintained and monitored around the clock, via sensors that measure over 3,000 data points per hour.
By implementing this automated approach, the company says that contamination and human-derived experimental errors are greatly reduced. Additional advantages of integrating robotics into laboratory procedures include greater efficiency and ease of standardization, and more metadata being generated, which will allow scientists to repeat experiments with less hassle, as well as permitting researchers to collaborate remotely — and quite likely with the assistance of AI in the near future.
As one might imagine, such an approach will also democratize access to state-of-the-art labs, enabling smaller organizations and individual researchers to conduct experiments without the need for paying upfront for costly equipment. As the trend toward increased automation continues in a wide variety of industries, it makes sense that automation will also help to further enhance the research process, making it more efficient and potentially more accessible.
Read more over at Strateos.