Opentrons raises $10M, rolls out $4K device to bring lab automation to the masses

Opentrons has raised $10 million to support its bid to upend the market for lab automation devices. Backed by Khosla Ventures and ex-Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler, the Y Combinator graduate is introducing a $4,000 robot that performs the well platings, serial dilutions and other pipetting tasks that underpin biological research.

High-throughput screening groups at biopharma labs began using automated systems years ago, but it has taken time for the technology to spread far beyond these specialized, well-financed teams. While the arrival of lower-cost benchtop devices has gone some way to expanding access to automation, manual pipetting remains the norm for many biologists. Opentrons wants to change that by serving scientists it thinks have been let down by incumbents in the lab automation sector.  

“Scientists … have been kind of, you know, screwed, honestly, by these companies for years. I don't think the machines need to cost as much as they charge,” Opentrons co-founder Will Canine said. “Lab equipment companies unfortunately take the approach of 'how much can we possibly charge our customers.' We really take the opposite approach, which is 'how little can we afford to charge our customers.'”

The adoption of that attitude is one of the ways Opentrons is trying to undercut the incumbents. The other is the use of a different supply chain. Canine says traditional lab automation systems are part of established industrial supply chains, resulting in them being made up of motors and other parts produced in Switzerland, Germany and the U.S. Opentrons has eschewed these resources and tapped into the supply chain that has grown up around the rise of 3D printers.

That approach echoes those taken by other emerging medtech companies, such as CMR Surgical, that have taken advantage of supply chains that support mobile devices to develop technologies that undercut incumbents. Like those companies, Opentrons thinks its supply chain provides parts that are the equal of industrial components in all ways but one: price. 

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“Our motors are a fraction of the cost of the motors that your traditional lab equipment companies use and just as precise,” Canine said.

New York, New York-based Opentrons is still some way from proving it can compete in the lab automation sector, let alone realize its loftier goals of accelerating biological research and addressing the life science reproducibility issue. But it is now positioned to find out one way or the other.

Opentrons first entered labs with OT-One, a robot aimed at hackers and researchers who are comfortable writing Python and want highly customizable tools. Now, the company is introducing OT-2, its $4,000, no-code robot designed with a price and features that make it attractive to a typical lab.  

“The OT-2 is for mainstream biologists. It should be pretty simple for anybody with a bare minimum of lab training just to pick up and go,” Canine said.

With access to OT-2 expanding from Mayo Clinic, NYU, Stanford and other beta customers to any lab that wants it, Opentrons has reeled in $10 million to fund its go-to-market strategy. Khosla led the round with assists from Kindler, Lerer Hippeau Ventures and Y Combinator Continuity Fund. Labs that order the robot will receive it in six to eight weeks.

Canine expects drug developers to be among the buyers. Researchers at seven of the top 10 pharma companies are already using Opentrons robots, Canine said, and the hope is that the easier-to-use OT-2 will see the other three try out the technology. 

Editor's note: The original version of this article referred to "Cambridge Medical Robotics." The company recently changed its name to "CMR Surgical."