How This Startup Is Using Lab Automation To Transform Life Sciences And Healthcare


No topic has been discussed more than Covid-19 in the past two years, and the detection of it remains a hot topic. Even today, 23% of adults are still extremely concerned about coronavirus, according to a recent Prosper Insights & Analytics survey.

Luckily, the crisis has spurred exciting new innovations – from diagnostics to treatments to vaccines to telemedicine. Today 36% of US adults have used some form of telemedicine, compared to just 13% in April 2020, according to a recent Prosper Insight & Analytics survey.

Opentrons is a lab automations company that’s at the center of life science innovation. While few might be familiar with the name, they’ve attracted funding from Softbank and their technology has powered several breakthroughs. They’ve been on the forefront of Covid-19 detection since day one and were even the first to detect the Omicron variant in New York last December.

I recently spoke to Opentron’s CEO Jon Brennan-Badal about the important work that the company is doing.

Gary Drenik: Tell me about your background and what led you to Opentrons?

Jon Brennan-Badal: Opentrons Labworks Inc. is a platform that integrates robotics, software, assay development and lab operations to supercharge the pace of innovation in life sciences. I have always been interested in technological innovation and joined Opentrons in 2014 from Amazon, where I was VP of strategy for its cloud-based digital comic distribution platform, comiXology. I have also had the opportunity to sit on the board for Genspace, a community biology lab offering STEAM education programs for people of all backgrounds. Genspace is helping to cultivate and educate the next wave of researchers, a cause I closely identify with.

After Covid-19 began to take hold of the world two years ago, the team and I saw how Opentrons’ automation could be used to support New York City’s public health response and formed the Pandemic Response Lab (PRL) together with scientists from NYU Langone. Similar to how Opentrons expands access to laboratory automation, PRL expands access to testing. As Covid-19 begins to enter an endemic state, PRL is focused on expanding its capabilities to target new disease areas and bridge the access gap many communities face when it comes to diagnostic services.

Drenik: A large part of your business is Covid-19 testing. What technological trends and innovations have made PRL’s unique approach to testing possible and what’s the impact on patients?

Brennan-Badal: PRL’s foundation is built on scientific innovation and laboratory automation. PRL’s world-renowned scientists bring the inherent knowledge, technology and innovation that comes from academia, applying a new scientific approach to the world of clinical diagnostics. PRL’s proprietary innovations have enabled it to scale diagnostics with a rapid turnaround time at a fraction of the cost and significantly expand access to care. Since its inception in 2020, PRL has scaled its pipeline and operational efficiency to new heights. Its New York City lab alone has a daily test capacity of 58,000 tests with most results delivered in under 24 hours. The extraordinary processing volume and turnaround time are one of the fundamental reasons PRL has become the city’s primary Covid-19 testing partner.

PRL has applied its automation and scientific expertise to further develop new products such as a non-diagnostic sequencing workflow for rapid variant detection and tracking. PRL provided 80 percent of sequencing for New York state and two percent of the world’s sequencing. As a result, PRL was the first to identify variants of concern such as beta and omicron in New York state. PRL shared this information with government and local officials to help inform public health responses. With this successful bedrock in place, PRL is strategically expanding its capabilities to support new disease testing.

Drenik: How is PRL expanding its innovative approach to diagnostics beyond Covid-19 testing?

Brennan-Badal: While PRL may have been born in the heart of the pandemic, our mission expands beyond Covid-19. With a successful foundation in place, PRL is looking to offer clinical laboratory testing services for a variety of diseases and conditions. In March, we launched our concise respiratory panel, which simultaneously tests four viruses: SARS-CoV-2, influenza A and B, and respiratory syncytial virus, at a cost lower than many Covid-19-only PCR tests. This syndromic testing practice has enabled clinicians to quickly test a broad group of pathogens at once, typically at a sensitivity greater than traditional laboratory methods. We will soon be launching test panels for other infectious disease areas, as well as routine health tests. This is an excellent example of how our technology can be applied to lower costs and provide better access to healthcare.

Drenik: What does lab automation make possible that wasn’t before? What future innovations will emerge from this automation?

Brennan-Badal: Laboratory automation drives PRL’s speed-to-scale model. In order to combat present and future SARS-CoV-2 variants, programs, and technology such as PRL’s are essential assets in our public health arsenal. This innovative approach to rapidly detect and identify SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens buys the critical time needed to quickly and effectively respond, adapt, and improve health outcomes in our communities.

Having proved the process and effectiveness in an unprecedented time in global health, PRL is expanding its clinical laboratory expertise to include multipanel infectious disease diagnostics and routine testing. PRL’s ability to produce rapid, reliable, low-cost tests at scale that simultaneously test for multiple diseases can significantly reduce the amount of misdiagnoses, improve access to care and treatment decisions.

Drenik: What are the biggest biotech trends you expect to transform healthcare in the coming decade? How does Opentrons fit into that?

Brennan-Badal: The Covid-19 pandemic intensified the shift in healthcare to more real-time, customized care as consumers demand the same tech-enabled convenience they experience in other areas of their lives. This trend is forcing providers and patients alike to challenge conventional processes that have seemingly burdened the healthcare system for decades. An example of this is in the lab. Traditional lab technologies require significant manual effort to set up and maintain — and can force biologists to spend significant time on manual, tedious processes. Our mission at Opentrons is to provide the scientific community with a common platform to easily share protocols and reproduce each other’s results. Our robots automate experiments that would otherwise be done by hand, allowing our community to spend more time pursuing answers to some of the 21st century’s most important questions.

PRL’s laboratory automation and scientific innovation enable it to deliver reliable results significantly faster than most laboratory offerings today. While most clinical laboratory businesses have long and rigid processes in place to set up new labs or commercialize a new product, PRL is able to leverage proven expertise to adapt to market needs quickly without compromising on cost, throughput, and quality.

As PRL expands beyond Covid-19 testing to multi-target infectious disease panels and routine testing, it provides better access to fast and reliable diagnostic tests, at a disruptive price compared to other labs. That ensures a greater reach across all populations, empowering people to take control of their own health, particularly among uninsured and historically underserved communities. Additionally, rapid results directly reduce the overprescribing of antibiotics prior to diagnoses, enables clinicians to make better treatment decisions and allows patients access to targeted treatments earlier.

Drenik: Thanks Jon for sharing more about the work that Opentrons and PRL has done both throughout the pandemic and beyond. We are looking forward to seeing the continued impact of this innovation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *