News Elemental Machines is Bringing IoT to Lab Operations, Saving Biotechs Millions
Internet of Things (IoT) products—like a Bluetooth-speaking shower head or a refrigerator that orders items directly from the Internet—may seem like fancy holiday gift ideas. But the company has already found a real use case for the new technology: Elemental Machines, an intelligence platform for laboratory operations, just raised $41 million in Series B funding. The company is helping biotech labs streamline their operations and potentially save the company millions of dollars by controlling environmental variables.
Its founder, Sridhar Iyengar, was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge when his doctoral project hit an unexpected snag: a routine experiment he had performed a hundred times for research suddenly stopped working. After months of wrestling and doubting whether he would be able to finish his dissertation work, he finally found out that the department had changed the brand of glassware cleaner used in dishwashers. Seemingly insignificant details that the purchasing department told no one had a profound effect on the experiment.
Anyone who has ever worked in a lab can share a similar story: the excruciating pain of trying to figure out the source of variability in an experiment. It’s such a common problem that academia even has an unspoken rule: If an experiment works three times, publish it, because trying to replicate it again is testing your luck. The problem is that this conventional academic wisdom doesn’t hold true in industry, where processes have to get right every time to make a reliable product. A “lab” space that implies experiments in academia is more like a factory in the biotech industry, and therefore must adhere to higher standards of quality and reproducibility.
Fortunately for Sridhar, unfortunate grad school events didn’t stop him from becoming a successful tech startup founder with more than 50 patents. Sridhar eventually entered the medical device industry, where precision and repeatability are as important, if not more important, than in the laboratory. In 2001, he founded AgaMatrix, a blood glucose monitoring company that makes meters for store brands such as CVS and Target
Since his Misfit days, Sridhar has been returning to the lab and is now applying everything he’s learned about building sensors and cloud-connected products to lab automation. Those lessons weren’t always easy: His company had to face a nearly 20 percent loss in production, costing millions of dollars, in making the blood glucose monitors. To better control manufacturing quality, they need to know what’s happening in a factory on the other side of the world. They were able to install simple sensors in manufacturing facilities that collect environmental data, such as temperature and humidity, and correlate these variables with product quality, which helped reduce production losses from 20 percent to less than 1 percent.
This experience taught Sridhar that any laboratory or manufacturing environment could greatly benefit from improved environmental monitoring and control. The technology has come a long way in the past 15 years: smart home devices are part of our everyday lives, so why not use them to simplify lab operations? That’s what Sridhar’s latest company, Elemental Machines, is doing: They’re building hardware, cloud apps, and AI-powered analytics products to help science-driven businesses become more efficient by collecting and extracting meaning from lab operations data. This technology may be the missing piece to make biomanufacturing successful:
“The line between the laboratory and the factory is blurring. This means that many methods traditionally used in manufacturing can start to be used in laboratory work,” Sridhar believes. “I think we’re very capable of bringing some new technologies into space.”
Elemental Machines is committed to proactively assessing the entire laboratory environment to ensure that teams, processes and equipment are utilized in the most efficient manner possible. For example, some instruments may be used more frequently than others and therefore need to be calibrated more frequently. Refrigerators closest to the bench may be opened more frequently, causing temperature fluctuations. All of these variables can be measured using sensors located throughout the laboratory, creating a smart laboratory infrastructure for data collection that can be used to optimize the use of resources. Elemental Machines has supported more than 500 life science customers to date, and it’s no surprise that cutting-edge synthetic biology companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks are among the first to embrace smart lab technology.
“In 2020, Ginkgo Bioworks started using remote monitoring from Elemental Machines. This allowed us to observe the health of the cold room by looking at the cycle times of the compressors and the number of times the doors were opened,” said Anna Greenswag, Senior Manager of Laboratory Operations at Ginkgo Bioworks. “We were able to easily connect Elemental Machines alerts into our notification process to resolve issues quickly. As we have grown, Elemental Machines has been able to keep pace and scale as needed. Elemental Machines has support for the communication touchpoints Ginkgo needs Open minded and interested in exploring other avenues to support lab management.”
But the potential impact of implementing smart lab technologies is not limited to the synthetic biology industry. Elemental Machines plans to use the $41 million raised in its previous round of financing to drive commercial growth in research, clinical and quality control laboratory services, and support industries in manufacturing, materials science, food technology, agricultural technology and other related fields. “We are excited to build on our tremendous success in research and development. We believe our technology platform has the potential to transform the operating environment by connecting virtually all physical assets to the cloud, allowing operators to focus on more strategic business initiative,” Sridhar said in a release.
Cloud-connected labs are easier to monitor under remote working conditions and help reduce human error. For GMP laboratories, it can reduce compliance costs, optimize operational efficiency, and increase biomanufacturing ROI. Elemental Machines can also help labs implement green initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of their research. Perhaps in the future, it will be able to diagnose and fix problems without human intervention. Autonomous systems are an integral part of the fourth industrial revolution that is changing the R&D environment. By simplifying routine lab tasks, like checking temperatures, it frees up scientists to focus on the “big picture.”
Lab automation may not be as appealing as wearables. But Sridhar sees the potential for huge impact in bringing Industry 4.0 technologies to science-driven businesses. With the drive to increase U.S. biomanufacturing capabilities, investments in automation, machine-to-machine communications, and AI-driven analytics are critical to gaining a competitive advantage. In a way, Elemental Machines is like a health monitor—but for your lab, like any other tracker, it can help your lab reach new heights.
thanks to Katya Tarasawa More research and reporting on this article.I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies I’ve written about, like Ginkgo Bioworks, are SynBioBeta Conference with weekly digest.