At Biosero’s San Diego headquarters, a mobile robot named Yoda wheels down the hallway to personally escort visitors to the company’s Acceleration Lab.
Then Yoda gets to work — picking up and delivering biological assay trays between scanning instruments scattered throughout the lab in a demonstration of how the Biosero’s technology helps speed up drug discovery through automation.
Biosero does not make the robot itself. Yoda is a mashup of an autonomous ground vehicle, a robotic arm and a machine vision system that allows it to work safely alongside humans.
What the privately held company does make is the software suite that manages the workflow — essentially the tasks being performed by robots and myriad other scientific instruments in automated life sciences labs.
“Our software will schedule the use of those devices, make them work together to form a complete solution, then contextualize the data from all those devices so it can be used,” said Tom Gilman, the founder and chief executive of Biosero.
When most of us think of industrial robots, what comes to mind is the caged-off, giant robotic arm swinging a car door into place in an auto plant or perhaps the warehouse robots that fetch merchandise.
But automation also has been part of the life sciences landscape for more than three decades, dating to Big Pharma’s high-throughput screening experiments to comb their molecule libraries for overlooked compounds to treat diseases.
Similar research continues to this day. San Diego’s Scripps Research Institute recently scanned 12,000 molecules in its library in hopes of repurposing some of them as therapeutics for patients with COVID-19.
With the help of robots, researchers found several promising candidates and published their findings in the journal Nature Medicine last week.
Scripps Research used Biosero’s Green Button Go scheduling software in the project, helping it to complete work in a matter of weeks rather than months.
“That, for us, is the end zone,” said Gilman. “That is what wakes us up in the morning. Show me the cure. Show me some results. We have been able to see that.”
Growth in genomic-based diagnostics — such as gold-standard PCR tests to detect COVID-19 — have further pushed labs to automate tasks such as liquid handling and sample transportation to increase volume.
Last year amid the pandemic, San Diego gene-sequencing giant Illumina launched a project to sequence COVID-19 viral genomes from thousands of patient samples per day to map coronavirus variants.
Biosero pieced together automated pre-sequencing workstations for sample extraction, amplification, conversion, and other steps to allow Illumina to hit its aggressive throughput targets.
“When Illumina came to us and asked us to devise a system for them that would allow them to test 10,000 samples a day, we were able to build upon existing automation technologies to give them a solution within a couple months last year,” said Imad Mansour, director of customer success at Biosero.
Biosero sits at the intersection of technology and life sciences. The region’s business leaders have long touted the potential for local software and technology firms to develop products targeting San Diego’s booming pharmaceutical, biotechnology, next-generation sequencing and clinical diagnostic companies.
“It still has a long way to go, but it’s growing,” said Mike Krenn, head of Connect/San Diego Venture Group. “There is stuff happening on the fringes.”
MedCrypt, for example, provides cybersecurity for medical devices. Cardea Bio is developing graphene-based transistors that integrate molecular biology with semiconductor electronics. And Edico Genome built a computer processing platform to analyze the reams of data produced in genomic sequencing equipment. It was acquired by Illumina in 2018.
Founded in 2003, Biosero started out selling third-party hardware and integration services to help life-science labs set up their automated work cells.
While integration services remain an important part of the business, the company pivoted away from hardware about a decade ago. Instead, it developed its own software suite to enable scheduling, device integration, data collection and other functions. Customers include Eli Lilly, Takeda, EMD Serono Research Institute and some 500 others.
Cannalysis Labs relies on the Green Button Go scheduler to manage automated sample prep for cannabinoid and chemical residue tests. That reduces the time to prepare samples by 94 percent.
At the Lilly Life Sciences Studio in San Diego, the company uses Biosero’s Green Button Go software as part of its early stage drug research.
“One of Lilly’s journeys is we are trying to take research and do it in half the time — going from 10 years from the time you discover something and bring it to market and moving that down to five years,” said Steven Laflin, an adviser at the Lilly Biotechnology Center in San Diego.
Automation is a big part of that journey.
“We are able to run things 24/7, 365 and figure things out in our assays much sooner,” said Laflin. “That leaves you in a situation where you get to pick from a far greater number of opportunities versus if you do it manually, which just takes too long. “
Robotics not only frees up scientists from mundane, repetitive tasks but also delivers traceable and repeatable results, said Laflin.
“It’s like when you cook something,” said Laflin. “You measure everything out but it’s never really accurate. The difference with robotics is it’s spot on. It measures everything perfectly, and it also tracks and traces from start to finish versus you having to manually write things down.”
Biosero employs just under 60 workers. It posted revenue above $20 million last year, said Gilman. Its year-over-year top-line growth rate hit 30 percent.
A unique thing about Biosero’s software is that it is completely hardware agnostic. The platform works with robots and other instruments from a wide range of manufacturers.
“Over these 10 years of us working in this area, we have developed a library of over 400 devices that we’ve connected to, and it keeps growing,” said Gilman. “That is not trivial.”
According to the company, its top competitors supply both hardware and software. But their emphasis often is on selling hardware, and sometimes the software is not necessarily tailored to play nice with equipment from rival manufacturers.
“Because these processes are very complex, they require many different types of instrumentation to run in an automated fashion,” said Jesse Mulcahy, senior automation scientist at EMD Serono, which is owned by Merck. “What Biosero is able to do is offer us software that is easy to use and very flexible to run these large, integrated systems.”
By focusing on software, Biosero believes it can adapt rapidly to new requirements in the lab.
“The thing about automation in life sciences is how quickly it changes,” said David Dambman, Biosero’s chief technology officer who led the company’s software development efforts. “We are not tooling up for five years in production. It is constantly changing. So, our software evolves very rapidly to meet these needs.”
Today, Biosero collects all the data from automated instruments. Applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to that data for things ranging from when to re-order consumables to what experiments should be done next to advance a drug target could be the next frontier, said Gilman.
“That is when things get really exciting,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But if you spend time to find those things that make you unique, I would say we are the best integrator in life sciences, and we use tools that we’ve developed in software to enable that.”
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