DIY Bio and the Future of Pipetting: A Conversation with OpenTrons

(picture credit: OpenTrons kickstarter)

What if all anyone needed in order to bioengineer was an idea, software, and a robot the price of a Macbook? This is precisely what OpenTrons founders Will Canine and Chiu Chau facilitate, having engineered an affordable device that pipettes in place of the human biologist – both increasing perfection in precise measurements, and decreasing the time and physical ability required in biological laboratory work. With the OpenTrons robot, anyone with biological knowledge can input protocols into their computer and perform experiments – no pipetting required.

BIOME discovered OpenTrons at the SynBioBeta conference in the Fall. Last week, BIOME shared dinner with these men and conversed about biology, bio-hacking, leather without animals, and startup culture in New York vs. the Bay Area. Before we crowded into the restaurant, Will and Chiu met me in Peet’s Coffee for a brief interview. The unlikely pair climbed the stairs and sat across from me. Will’s tall legs folded in front of the small chair, and Chiu’s black beret rested above his lively eyes. We shook hands.

Q: We are honored you two are spending time with us, especially since we are a student group. What do you think about the future of student bio-hacking groups in the wider culture of biology?

Will: So, I did a lot of student activism when I was an undergrad. I am a big believer in young people, self-directed, doing interesting things. Student groups have historically been really effective in moving the dial on cultural movements and making big changes. Also, we are out of the DIY bio movement. We came through Genspace. I’m completely self-taught. (He gestures toward Chiu.) You’re basically self-taught.

Chiu: I am self-taught.

Will: Definitely. I think the potential is huge. Out of student groups can come really interesting stuff, because you are right at the nexus of the institution, and you have the perfect departure point to something else. You could be the bridge to the next thing, whatever that is.

Chiu: I think the timing is right. If you wanted to do bio ten years ago, it was impossible. There was no DNA available. Now you can order online. Next day you have it, in your house.

Q: Chiu, you worked in the FDA for a bit, right?

Chiu: My background was truly engineering. Mechanical and physics. I joined a couple startups doing lasers, and then joined a startup doing DNA stuff. I worked more on the engineering side, then I learned the biology side because I liked it more. I learned gene sequencing and all this crazy stuff. [I went from] robots and a solar company to the FDA. I found [the FDA] both fascinating and annoying. You have all this equipment for thousands of dollars that you can’t afford. When I bought two of [the machines], I couldn’t even run them. The machine is so complicated, and next thing you know you break it. That’s why when I started another startup, I thought okay, I need a robot, I couldn’t afford one, let’s start building something. That’s when the 3D printer came along. I started hacking them. The tool is important, right? If it’s not available, there’s nothing you can do. But for a couple hundred bucks? I’ll buy it and take it apart.

Q: How did you find each other?

Will: Chiu was starting his thing and realized he needed a robot and didn’t want to pay for it, so he put a pipetter on an open source 3D printer. I was learning how to pipette at Genspace and was getting that first frustration of, wow, if I want to realize these biological designs in my imagination, I have to become an expert with my hands moving around tiny amounts of liquid. I was like, I don’t want to do that! Why can’t I just download this protocol and hit run on my 3D printer? So he put his first prototype on the DIY biology list serve online. I found it, emailed him, and that was the beginning of an open source collaboration that turned into the company.

Chiu: I built a tool, he wanted to use the tool, and he had a bigger dream than me. I just wanted to build a tool so everyone could use it.

Will: I wanted to build a user experience on top of that.

Q: Will, what brought you to the DIY bio movement?

Will: My background is running political campaigns. I worked for Democrats and progressive causes as a campaign organizer for a number of years. 2006-2010. I started working my way up the campaign hierarchy and thought that once you get to a certain level you get to make changes in how things were done, realized that wasn’t the case in campaigning, and wanted to find a more effective tool of making change in the world and making things better.

This was the time when everything was happening in Tunisia, Egypt, the Arab Spring, and people were calling them the Twitter revolutions. For the first time, people were taking over the means of producing the news. News had been decentralized, and therefore there was a whole different place where social power was being exerted. Technology is a really effective way of distributing power and making it so people can do things they couldn’t do before – individuals, not big organizations.

That was also when 3D printing and digital fabrication were coming along. I thought, YouTube people can make TV, Twitter people can make the news, bloggers can make all the other written media, and now with 3D printing and laser cutting, people are going to be able to make physical things and transfer them digitally as well.

I’ve always been obsessed with biology. In high school, that was my passion. In college, I stopped doing biology at the class where I had to memorize every worm phylum. I came back around to it around this time when I was diving into software and 3D printing, and I realized biology was one of the most centralized and controlled technologies out there, and one that was ready to explode with innovation. Decentralizing who can create with biology became an obsession of mine. How do we do that? One of the best ways is creating a tool and a way of working that facilitates decentralization and empowers the individual. That’s the philosophical direction that brought me to OpenTrons. It’s one we still share, and is the mission of the company.

Chiu: It is really our passion to empower everyone. Now you have a tool, just like a map or a laptop. Now we can all connect and do things together, but individually.

Q: How much background knowledge of biology, engineering, etc. would one need to operate OpenTrons?

Will: We are not lowering how much biology you need to know. You need to design your organisms and put your DNA together. We are hoping to lower the barrier entry on the lab work part, knowing how to execute all these protocols. We are hoping to make [the protocols] a download off the internet, so you can focus on the biological design and experimental design, and not have such a high barrier to entry for executing the protocols you want to do.

Chiu: For instance, we were talking to a top-notch scientist who worked for a pharmaceutical company. He said, “I start from the beginning of the design, get the director, clone the whole thing, get the DNA out, go the whole nine yards.” I said, “What, you spent 35 years learning how to pipette and doing all these things?” And he said, “Yeah.” You get so frustrated. Biology is not as simple as we want it to be, but it should be a tool everybody can use. Humans are prone for mistakes, but in biology you can’t have mistakes. There’s a discrepancy – you want to do something, you have to reach a certain level. So I spent ten years pipetting. You get frustrated and want to do something else.

Will: One of the key things in engineering is when you can separate the design from the fabrication, so people don’t have to be worried about the how, but the what. Then, the how can be taken care of and abstracted. You see that with electrical engineering. People used to worry about how they roll their own resister, and now you just have to pick out the one with the right band, plug it in, and you’re good to go. Trying to package complexity is really important.

Q: What is the most interesting thing you have seen done with the OpenTrons robot?

Will: Making it so you can download a protocol to build your own piece of DNA. Putting together different pieces of DNA. DNA assembly. That’s something we did with the Synbiota kit a long time ago at Genspace. Bio-hackers use [the robot] to build plasmids in a non-institutional setting. Some of the crazier ones – one of our Stanford users has used the thing for a 16 hour process where they grow cells in a shaking plate, and they use the robot to go down into the shaking plate every fifteen minutes for sixteen hours. There’s not another [mechanism] out there to do that kind of thing.

Chiu: Except a human. You can stand there for 16 hours.

Q: OpenTrons makes all its robots in China. How does the Chinese biology/bio-hacking culture differ from American biology culture

Will: There is a very robust hacker movement in the hardware world, and I think people are starting to get interested in doing biology. But I haven’t seen anybody quite make a bio-hacker space. I’m pretty sure a lot of that has to do with the regulatory environment.

Chiu: And accessibility. You can’t order the DNA easily. It exists, but it’s institutionalized. They’re going to check you. You’re a student? Get out of here. There are barriers, and the community isn’t as open minded as here.

Will: Chinese researchers are pushing the envelope in a lot of ways that Western researchers are afraid to touch. The grassroots aren’t as well watered, but the mid level is much freer to try things in a lot of ways. Around here, we tend to have a more frightened outlook on the prospect of biotechnology. There’s an old strain of European/American environmentalism that hates the idea of manipulating DNA, and I don’t think that is a thing [in China].

Chiu: I love this story about Ebola, a year ago. During the case, only two companies had the vaccine. One company was in the US and one was in Canada. So they got the vaccine to American citizens, and it worked. [Ebola] died in the US. Liberia called the US and said they needed a hundred doses for a hundred patients. The two companies said they could give a hundred, but only fifty would work because the other half would be placebos. Liberia said, “Are you kidding me? We have a hundred people dying. Am I supposed to tell them fifty will die, and we don’t know which people?” So who did they call?

Will: The American companies filed a patent on the vaccine. The patent has been published, though. Everyone knew how to make it, but in the US and Canada, only these companies [were able to] make the vaccine.

Chiu: Liberia got a call from a Beijing biotech company. “I heard you have a case? I can ship [vaccines] to you tomorrow,” the company told them. “How do you have it?” Liberia asked. “Well, we reverse engineered the whole thing, and we made it. You want a hundred? We have more!” This is a true story. You can Google this. [Liberia] got the dose, and I think it worked. That’s what I hate about pharmaceutical companies – if it’s life and death, take your hands off, I don’t care right now. I can’t tell my people, “You might live, I don’t know who.” You can’t do that. Right now, we are doing this God thing. According to my rules, you can’t do that.

Rachel Zilberg

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