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Life Science Entrepreneurs Find Success Supporting Research Breakthroughs

Four tenacious technology developers create innovations for making workflows more efficient, fluent and connected. Learn how they leveraged their SLAS membership through the years to correct their mistakes, build new businesses, learn from their customers’ needs and deliver finished instruments and products to an enthusiastic audience, receiving not one but two SLAS New Product Awards.

“We launched our last company just with a problem to solve – not a technology to deploy,” says Piero Zucchelli, Ph.D., president of Andrew Alliance – a Waters Co. (Vernier, Switzerland). “We wanted to discover why manual pipetting was still a big problem on the market, and why there were still a million pipettes sold every year in our field.”

Zucchelli and three other technology developers, fresh from another startup and possessing backgrounds in physics, mechanical engineering, R&D and life sciences research, knew they could improve laboratory workflows to relieve the strain of manual pipetting. Drawing inspiration from his years of experience at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Geneva, Switzerland), home of the world's largest and most complex scientific instruments to study fundamental particles, Zucchelli began a fact-finding mission into the daily routine of labwork.

“Life sciences professionals spend too much of their time manually pipetting because it is fundamental to research. At CERN, computing and inventing tools to avoid manual labor is cultural,” Zucchelli comments. “So starting in March 2011, we decided the first goal of our new startup was to have a product solution ready to launch at SLAS2013 in Orlando, FL (USA).” An SLAS member since 2005, Zucchelli says numerous interactions with fellow members helped him formulate a functionality checklist to define their needs for automation.

Two years, one prototype and three completed robots later, Zucchelli used the last of the company’s start-up finances to buy plane tickets for SLAS2013. “It was a one-shot opportunity: the only physical event we could afford to attend,” says Zucchelli. “We got off the plane and immediately went to Ikea to get furniture for our exhibition space. This was our market launch – three robots on a bench in the corner at SLAS,” he recalls, with a laugh. “I booked a holiday after the event. My reflection was either we close the company, and I have a week off, or I will be so tired from our successful exhibition that I will need to rest! It was do or die for our enterprise.”

The team’s effort, a liquid-handling, anthropomorphic robot called Andrew, was a hit. The robot, whose name came from the Isaac Asimov novel The Bicentennial Man, replaces manual pipetting while using conventional pipettes and labware that are vital to the discovery and exploitation of new pharmaceuticals. The instrument provides efficient, reproducible results in the R&D laboratory and requires minimal robotics knowledge to operate. In its first year of production, the fledgling company achieved significant global sales and received four noteworthy awards for the robot, including the SLAS2013 New Product Award (SLAS NPA).

“People become SLAS members to communicate and interact. Being an SLAS member and participating in the exhibition gives us invaluable tools for growing our company,” says Zucchelli, who also is a member of the SLAS Technology Editorial Board. “For us, the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition is an event we cannot miss because this is where we meet partners, colleagues and customers. Receiving the SLAS2013 New Product Award was an immediate and direct validation of our product by the life sciences community.”

Bootstrapping a Robot

The path to SLAS2013 actually started more than 10 years before, when Andrew Alliance’s co-founders, Zucchelli, Giorgio Horak, Antione Jordan and Isabelle Semac, were working together in another start-up company, SpinX Technologies, to provide innovative lab-on-a-chip technology to perform biological assays. Financial backer Sam Eletr, Ph.D., a co-founder and first CEO of Applied Biosystems, Inc. (Foster City, CA, USA), whose DNA sequencers first enabled the sequencing of the human genome, joined the team to offer support and guidance. “Sam was and remains my mentor,” says Zucchelli. “I made two companies in my career, but Sam launched 15 or more and he hasn’t stopped yet!”

SpinX operated for eight years, equipping the entrepreneurs with valuable lessons and positive momentum that increased their determination to succeed. Unfortunately, the company didn’t achieve expected success and halted operations. The team acknowledges some fundamental mistakes became apparent after the closing, such as not understanding or interacting with the market before starting technology development.

“Technology from our first company was very appreciated by customers, our partners and a lot of companies that were looking to acquire us, but we needed to have a more in-depth understanding of the market to help our customers with yet another technology,” Zucchelli says.

For their next venture, the team first worked directly with users determining what problems needed solving – an approach that cleared path to market and helped them focus the expensive, complicated process of product development toward a valuable product. “Our company doesn’t have a complex marketing structure or divisions,” says Zucchelli, who connected with potential users via his SLAS membership to advance the technology. “Everybody interacts with customers at different levels, and we actually followed the advice and suggestions from a lot of people connected to SLAS.” He mentions frequent interaction over the years with Al Kolb, Ph.D., an SLAS member and a former president of the Society for Biomolecular Sciences (SBS), one of two groups that merged to form SLAS, and Sabeth Verpoorte, Ph.D., a former SLAS president and also a professor to some of SpinX Technology's employees through her previous work at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland.

Armed with ideas to address the market-driven problems, the Andrew Alliance team began building the first generation of robots. Visions of a robot that would make lab life easier for bench scientists played out in sketches made with freely available software, and converted in 3D-printed prototypes that were spray-painted on the balcony of co-founder Horak’s apartment (which are today still marked by the paint).

“Clearly, as we were only four people, we imagined that we needed to become masters of design – mechanical, electronic and software engineers – and marketing professionals managing the website and sales materials,” Zucchelli says. “Wearing all the hats among four people was hard but very powerful and coherent.”

“This was a challenging time, but also one I remember with a lot of pleasure,” he continues. “All of us working from our homes around the clock, making the robot. In the morning as if nothing had happened, we all would appear in Gorgio’s apartment and start work while he was still in pajamas.” When the prototype was complete, Zucchelli remembers taking photographs for the self-made website in his dining room.

Delving into every aspect of Andrew’s creation was critical to the team’s success, Zucchelli explains, crediting both SLAS and the company’s constructive customers for ongoing support. “Andrew was launched in 2013 with one model and three accessories. By 2019, we had five robot models and more than 200 accessories, all of which have been customer-driven requests.”

As they head into the future, the company plans to move beyond stand-alone robots to create instruments and software for the connected laboratory. “This trajectory allows us to openly connect more and more devices even if they are not manufactured by us,” Zucchelli says. “We want to create an ecosystem that I hope will simplify life in the laboratory and allow scientists to stay focused on science – not on the tools required.”

The Connected Lab Springs from a Connected Market

It’s easy to lose focus, Zucchelli acknowledges. “Scientists can get overwhelmed by the vast amount of technology that floods the market. Once at a show in Europe, I systematically asked users how many technologies they had seen. Every one of them said they had seen too many to even learn in their lifetime,” he says.

The solution, Zucchelli says, is to integrate user interfaces and experiences in the newly arrived technology, without making the connected lab a rigid and dedicated production line “like what you have in the automotive industry,” he explains. “It will be something much more flexible and intuitive that incorporates artificial and human intelligence into its design because this is the way lab science works.”

Pursuit of the connected lab began in June 2018 when Andrew Alliance announced a $14 million C-round investment in the company by several leading life sciences enterprises, including Tecan Group, Waters Corp., Inpeco, Rancilio Cube, Sam Eletr Trust and Omega Funds. The investment provided a boost of product innovation, strategic industry partnerships and worldwide collaboration with customers to refine future innovations. Zucchelli mentions it was particularly meaningful to have both Waters, a pioneer in chromatography, mass spectrometry and thermal analysis innovations, and Tecan, a recognized leader for automated liquid handling solutions, involved in the funding and in the project definition.

“While we had hundreds of customers, Waters and Tecan represent the experience of thousands of customers to help us achieve a much wider reach,” he explains. He also mentions ongoing support from industry collaborators such as Sartorius, which manufactures the pipettes used by the robots. Connections to these companies came directly from participating in the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition, says Zucchelli who calls it “a real community.”

Continuing interaction with partners and customers resulted in the roll out of Andrew+ and Pipette+ at SLAS2019 (Washington, DC, USA). The new innovations, which also received an SLAS New Product Award at that event, feature significant improvements drawn from market information and user feedback. The instruments represent a portion of Andrew Alliance’s innovative OneLab ecosystem that features intuitive lab software to facilitate efficient, centralized programming of connected pipettes and rapid sharing of protocols, enabling laboratories to boost productivity and performance.

The OneLab concept stems from the ever-expanding role of software to process data in scientific discovery. “Thirty years ago people based important decisions on how they mixed and measured a reaction by looking to the color of the reaction by eye – an observation that represents one bit of data in the digital world,” Zucchelli comments. “Today’s researchers extract hundreds of gigabytes if not terabytes of data that need to be processed. It is unthinkable that there will not be software covering data, instrument processing, complex sample preparation workflows and more.”

Data processing is crucial for advancing life sciences research and developing diagnostics, according to Zucchelli. “Consider the complexities of putting together today’s data about patients and COVID-19, as scientists explore the bubble of the disease in a quest for a vaccine,” he says. He mentions that his company has seen interest in their instruments for COVID-19 related activities and finds that the company’s digital culture has been a plus in the shut-down.

“We know that some of our instruments were bought and installed remotely within 48 hours in different countries during the pandemic. To achieve this, we offer remote installations and support, webinars and video demos of the robots in action – and OneLab allows customers to design experiments at home and operate our robots remotely. This is a new world, and Andrew Alliance welcomes the opportunity to play a central role,” he says.

While COVID-19 related research swells, all other research has slowed during this time of sheltering-in-place for so many countries around the world. “You can imagine at the moment people cannot go to the lab and must find ways to work from home – so demand for conventional devices and other applications has surely slowed down,” says Zucchelli. “Uncertainty is extremely dangerous. Even the largest companies in the world are being careful and conservative because nobody knows when this situation will end. Labs are not fully operational. It’s a hard time.”

In spite of this untraveled path, he reports that Andrew Alliance continues forward motion. The company sealed the promise of expanding OneLab when Waters Corp. purchased the startup in January 2020. Zucchelli comments that while some aspects of work changed after the purchase, one remained the same: Waters’ support of the culture and spirit of Andrew Alliance.

Zucchelli concludes: “Waters’ combination of instruments and chemistries will help us accelerate the delivery of our innovative software and hardware technologies to customers as mass spectrometry increasingly moves into the hands of more and more users.”

 

Photos courtesy of Robert Aebli Fotografie, Zurich, Switzerland.

June 1, 2020