Elemental Machines Is Bringing The Internet Of Things To Lab Operations To Save Millions Of Dollars For Biotech Companies

The Internet of Things (IoT) products – like a Bluetooth speaker showerhead or a refrigerator that orders things directly from the internet – may seem like gimmicky holiday gift ideas. But this company has found a practical use case for the new technology. Elemental Machines, a lab operations intelligence platform, has just raised $41 million in a Series B funding round. The company is helping biotech labs streamline their operations and potentially save millions of dollars for companies by controlling environmental variables.

Its founder, Sridhar Iyengar, was a graduate student at Cambridge University when his PhD project hit an unexpected roadblock. a routine experiment he had performed a hundred times for his research suddenly stopped working. After months of hair-pulling and wondering whether he would be able to complete his dissertation work, he finally came to find out the department had switched the glassware detergent brand that had been used in its dishwashers. That seemingly insignificant detail that procurement had failed to inform anyone of had a profound effect on the experiment.

Anyone who has ever worked in the lab can share a similar story. the excruciating pain of trying to figure out the sources of variability in their experiments. It is such a common problem, that there is even an unspoken rule among academics. if the experiment works three times, publish it, because trying to replicate it again would be testing your luck. The problem is that this conventional academic wisdom does not work so well in industry where the process has to work right every time in order to make reliable products. The “lab” spaces that imply experimentation in academia are more like factories for the biotech industry and therefore must adhere to much higher quality and reproducibility standards.

Luckily for Sridhar, the unfortunate graduate school incident did not hold him back from becoming a successful tech startup founder who holds over 50 patents. Sridhar ended up in the medical devices industry where precision and reproducibility are just as vitally important as in the lab, if not more. In 2001, he founded AgaMatrix, a blood-glucose monitor company that makes glucose meters for store brands like CVS, Target
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and Kroger
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. Their monitor was the first FDA-approved medical device that could connect directly to your smartphone, ushering in a new era of digital health technologies. His second company, Misfit, the maker of wearable fitness tracker devices and smart home products, was acquired by Fossil in 2015 for $260 million.

Since his Misfit days, Sridhar has circled back to the lab and is now applying everything he learned about building sensors and cloud-connected products to lab automation. Those lessons were not always easy. while making the glucose monitors, his company had to face close to 20% losses on the production side, costing them millions of dollars. To have a better control over manufacturing quality, they needed to know what was happening in the factory halfway around the world. They were able to install simple sensors in the manufacturing facility, gather environmental data (such as temperature and humidity), and correlate those variables to product quality, which helped reduce the production losses from 20% down to less than 1%.

What that experience taught Sridhar is that any lab or manufacturing environment could greatly benefit from improved environmental monitoring and control. The technology has made a lot of progress in the last 15 years. smart home devices are part of our daily lives, so why not bring them to streamline lab operations? This is what Elemental Machines, Sridhar’s latest company, is doing. they are building the hardware, cloud applications, and AI-driven analytics products to help science-driven enterprises increase their efficiency by gathering and extracting meaning from lab operations data. This technology could be a missing piece to enable biomanufacturing success.

“The line between labs and factories is blurring. And what that means is a lot of the approaches that were traditionally used in manufacturing can start being used in lab work,” thinks Sridhar. “I think we’re very well positioned to bring some new technologies to the space.”

Elemental Machines works to proactively evaluate the entire laboratory environment to ensure that teams, processes, and equipment are utilized in the most efficient way possible. For example, some instruments may be used more often than others, requiring more frequent calibration. The refrigerator closest to the lab bench may be opened more frequently, leading to temperature fluctuations. All of these variables can be measured using sensors placed throughout the lab, creating a smart lab infrastructure for data collection that can be leveraged to optimize the use of resources. To date, Elemental Machines has supported over 500 life sciences customers, and it is no surprise that the first adopters of the smart lab technology are the cutting-edge synthetic biology companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks.

“In 2020, Ginkgo Bioworks began to utilize Elemental Machines’ remote monitoring. This enables us to watch the health of our cold storage units by looking at the cycle time of the compressor as well as seeing the number of door openings,” said Anna Greenswag , Senior Manager of Laboratory Operations at Ginkgo Bioworks. “We were able to easily connect Elemental Machines alerts into our notification process so that issues can be addressed quickly. As we have grown, Elemental Machines has been able to keep pace and scale as needed. Elemental Machines is open to communication touch points as needed by Ginkgo and is interested in other avenues to explore supporting lab management.”

But the potential impact of implementing smart lab technologies is not limited to just synthetic biology industry. Elemental Machines plans to use the $41 million raised in the last funding round to fuel commercial growth in research, clinical, and quality control lab services, as well as support related fields such as manufacturing, materials science, food tech, ag tech, and others industries. “We are excited to build on the tremendous success we’ve had in the R&D space. We believe that our technology platform is poised to transform operational environments by connecting nearly any physical asset to the cloud, thereby freeing operators to focus on more strategic initiatives,” said Sridhar in a press release.

A cloud-connected lab is easier to monitor in remote working conditions and can help reduce human error. For GMP labs, it can reduce their cost of compliance, optimize operational efficiencies, and increase the ROI of biomanufacturing. Elemental Machines can also help labs implement green initiatives to reduce the environmental footprint of their research. And perhaps in the future, it will be able to diagnose and fix issues without human intervention. Autonomous systems are an integral aspect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is transforming research and development environments. By streamlining mundane lab tasks, like checking temperatures, it could free up scientists to focus on the “big picture”.

Lab automation is perhaps less sexy than wearables. But Sridhar sees the potential for tremendous impact by bringing Industry 4.0 technologies to science-driven enterprises. With the push to increase the US biomanufacturing capacity, investments in automation, machine-to-machine communication, and AI-driven analytics are crucial to gain a competitive edge. In a way, Elemental Machines is like a health monitor – but for your lab, and as other trackers do, can help propel your lab to new heights.

Thank you to Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about, such as Ginkgo Bioworks, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference: and: weekly digest.

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