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 — has 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.”