In this interview, we speak to Mostafa ElSayed, CEO of Automata, about their new, accessible, lab automation platform Automata Labs and its benefits for scientific research.
Please could you introduce yourself, tell us about what Automata does, and what makes it exciting?
My name is Mostafa ElSayed, and I am the co-founder and CEO of Automata. Automata is a laboratory automation business that was founded as a startup in London in 2015. What we work on is moving laboratories towards total workflow automation.
If you walk into a laboratory today, there is a pervasiveness of partial automation. In the trade show today, you will see a lot of these devices that automate a step in a scientist’s workflow.
We have seen a massive demand in the market for automation that takes that partial automation and connects it together to automate that scientist’s workflow. That is what we are focused on here at Automata.
Meet the team: Automata
You are the CEO and co-founder of Automata, a health technology company. Can you tell us a little bit more about it? What are some of your aims and missions?
Automata was born from an observation that automation was not taking off in a range of markets. We have seen the world of automotive manufacturing get transformed through automation. We have a fundamental belief that this technology can change the way people work.
Being in the market for so long, for five years, and selling hundreds of our robots, we realized that customers were starting to use robots more and more, but they were not adopting the technology at a scale that could transform their business.
We decided two years ago that for a company to truly adopt automation at scale, there is a change that needs to happen in the management process. Automata cannot just be involved in a part of that journey. We have to own that journey to deliver value to our customers as quickly as possible. This is the idea of time to science. We have transformed the business around that idea, both in the types of products we make and the teams we create to support our customers on that journey.
It has been a really exciting couple of years. We have started to see our customers and the laboratories that we work with adopt this technology at scale. They are now able to run their laboratories at the throughput that they previously were not able to achieve and at a reliability rate that was previously impossible under manual paradigms. For us, it is a really exciting time in the adoption cycle of this technology.
Laboratory automation has seen tremendous advancements in recent years, with many companies turning to automated procedures to increase their workflow. What could automation bring to the life science space, and which sectors would particularly benefit from this?
We see three main drivers for automation in this sector. The first is like the bread and butter of automation, which is the reduction of menial tasks. Everyone knows that this is the benefit of automation.
In the life sciences, the word science is heavily dependent on the repeatability and reliability of the results. It was shocking to us when visiting laboratories that operate at scale in various institutions that their error rates were through the roof. The traceability of a sample is opaque at best. We have seen automation change other industries in this respect. I think this is a clear benefit that automation can bring to this market.
The last benefit is what we are seeing in spaces like next-generation sequencing, high throughput screening, and experimentation for the reasons of drug discovery. Automation is a fundamental tenant for them to be able to do these workflows at the pace and scale that they need to achieve their target.
Image Credit: Automata
At Automata you have created the most accessible lab automation platform, Automata Labs. Can you tell us more about this? What advantages does using Automata Labs have not only for research but innovation also?
We are big believers in the rise of automation scientists. We have seen this role in some of the most progressive laboratories that we have worked with. There is a newly empowered role in these organizations for an individual who is responsible for the adoption of this technology.
Our job is to empower them through our technology. We do not see ourselves as the experts in their space. We see ourselves as helping those experts. That is why Automata Labs was born and why it is not just a hardware offering. It is a hardware, software, and service offering bundled together in a pricing model that allows as little friction as possible in the adoption of this technology. Our goal is to empower these individuals to transform the organizations that they move.
You recently attended SLAS 2022. Can you tell us more about what technology you showcased here?
At SLAS, we showed people the first building blocks of the Automata Labs product for the first time. This is the Automata bench infrastructure and the software that drives it. So far, we have had an incredible response. If you have ever been in a laboratory, one of the main constraints is space.
The other insight is that laboratories are designed around benches. The benches are like an Ikea module of a laboratory. It is shocking to us that they are not designed around that constraint. For us, it was a fundamental product principle that these products should be built in a way that is either a one-to-one swap-out in a laboratory or augmentations to your existing laboratory with minimal interventions to increase adoption.
We had a really good response because I think people are intrigued that these capabilities are possible within this footprint and within a business model that adapts to them. The main factor that we are focused on developing is the software that empowers this product ecosystem.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put a hold on many in-person exhibitions and conferences. Why are in-person conferences and exhibitions so important for companies like yourself? What advantages do they have compared to virtual ones?
For in-person events, especially in this kind of market, there is a ‘show me’ attitude. Nothing speaks louder to these automation scientists than for them to see a like-for-like in person. It is one thing to educate them about what automation can do. It is another thing to show them.
Again, you should not burden these people with the idea of what can I do with this technology? It is our job to show them what is possible and then build products that allow them to scale from there. I think in-person events are a fantastic vehicle to do that.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need for fast, automated technologies concerning testing capabilities. What involvement did Automata have within the COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 was an opportunity for us to demonstrate two of the company’s fundamental principles that make up our values. The first is space. This is 50% of the reason why Automata got a significant number of projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were able to speak to the urgency of our customers and show an ability to respond. We embed people in your laboratories if you have the scale that makes it necessary. The other factor that COVID-19 showed is what can happen when you automate in terms of turnaround time and scale. Another reason we have seen success during COVID is that the science was being figured out as we went along. In the world of traditional automation, that is a very troublesome paradigm.
If you talk to some of our customers, you will see that one of the main reasons they chose us is because we work on 48-hour turnaround times by adapting our platform to fit the customers’ needs. Furthermore, we are now in a place where they can do it themselves through our product.
These tools should never get in the way. That is something we see heavily in this market. The tool can be fundamentally great, but many times the elements associated with that tool can become cumbersome for these scientists.
Automated lateral flow testing solution - Automata Labs
Are you hopeful that with increased awareness surrounding the advantages of companies automating their workflow, we will see more researchers using these kinds of platforms?
We are seeing a level of interest, demand, and awareness that we could not have imagined prior to the pandemic. We set up an advisory board and what they are seeing on the ground is incredible.
What we are also seeing in genomics, for example, is the universality of these technology platforms, which is really exciting. It shows that genetic platforms are applicable to a wide variety of diagnostic uses. In the past, this universality was somewhat crippling.
With this kind of technology, which we have seen in the NHS, is that you can take these platforms and build a genomics or genetics factor. This is where you house technology under one roof that services a variety of diagnostic verticals. To me, if that is not the future, I do not know what is.
What advice would you give to researchers or companies looking to start using automation but are unsure where to start?
First and foremost, it is easier than you think. Look for people who make it easy for you. Do not look for those who have opaqueness and credibility combined. The second is that we find success the fastest, this idea of time to science, for customers who understand that they are the experts in their assays. The customers are the experts of their workflows, and we help them automate them.
As technology providers, we want to make these tools work for you. I think it is that synergy between not preaching about customers’ workflows or scientific processes and respecting that they are the subject matter expert in their field.
We also see a significant ‘land and expand’ mentality in this market. A lot of these people are now comfortable with the idea of liquid handling, for example. It is a very small step to question what can be automated in a liquid handling operation. This ultimately drives the seed of change. Then three months or so down the line, companies could have automated more than 43% of their overall process.
We have seen this in people who have adopted automation for the first time. Initially, they did not even have automated liquid handling. We have been in laboratories where automation is their bread and butter, and they are known for the scale of automation they have. Automating a process step-by-step is a really important part of the journey for organizations to adopt this kind of technology.
What do you believe the future of laboratory automation and robotics will look like within the life sciences industry?
We strongly believe in and support the rise of automation. We believe that this will transform the industry. There will be an increasing number of laboratories with completely automated workflows in the future. This enables incredibly fast turnaround times and incredibly fast-changing times. Ultimately, the benefits are the flexibility and the scale of experimentation.
We are also seeing, in the UK, for example, the idea of empowering people who previously could not access automation because they did not have the scale to financially argue for automation.
Once you build this idea of a factory and a horizontal technology platform that services a variety of people within the same organization, whether that is the NHS, a private diagnostic provider, a biotech research agency, or a CRO, you suddenly have an ability to decide who can access automation in those organizations. This barrier massively comes down. To use a common word, the democratization of who can access this technology rises.
Finally, we are seeing some of the most progressive organizations promote ideas like completely light-out wet laboratories, which for people like us is incredibly exciting. You can see the benefits quite clearly. It all relates to scale, flexibility and reliability while empowering an organization’s scientists and operators to do more meaningful work.
Image Credit: PopTika/Shutterstock.com
What is next for Automata?
At Automata, we feel like we’re just getting started. We are known for our attitude towards affordable automation. In the last two years, people have started to understand what we are trying to do, and they are adopting our attitude at scale. We have moved them across that automation journey, and they are starting to see the benefits of this technology and scale.
For us, that means launching an entirely new product portfolio for 2022 and 2023. It means geographic expansion into these exciting markets that we see in the US from our home base of the UK and Western Europe. It means doubling down on the use cases that we see today that are incredibly exciting. There are a variety of use cases, for example, spaces like cell cultures, next-generation sequencing, drug discovery, diagnostics laboratories.
Due to the company’s growth in the last two years, we have just closed a $50 million fundraiser to allow us to support that expansion. We are hiring across the team from a commercial perspective, a product perspective, and an engineering perspective.
We are looking to deepen our partnerships with companies that we have been working with over the last two years, even perhaps bringing a few companies into the umbrella of Automata. I think there is room for a couple of European companies to rise in this space. I think the east and west coast have this incredible ability to build these incredible change-making organizations. We see many companies doing amazing things in the UK, but they do not have access to that scale. If they could have access to it through Automata, that would be an incredibly exciting thing.
About Mostafa ElSayed
Mostafa ElSayed is the CEO and co-founder of Automata, a world-class, London-based automation company disrupting the life sciences industry by creating and deploying fully automated solutions into labs across the world. Its current workflow automation offering, Automata Labs, enables scientists working in diagnostics, drug discovery, and biotech to shorten turnaround times, spend more time on analyses, and generate cost-reductions.
Prior to c0-founding Automata, Mostafa spent five years at Zaha Hadid Architects, becoming the Lead Designer of the firm’s Computation and Design Group. Automata was born from Mostafa’s fascination with the potentials of design, engineering, and robotics to transform workplace efficiencies and output.
Automata is today a leader in total workflow automation in life sciences, where Mostafa spearheads the company’s vision and innovation with one eye to the future of life science automation. Automata is changing perceptions that automation technology is expensive and complex and redefining what it means to ‘work’, empowering industries to automate previously dangerous, boring, and difficult physical work.
About Automata Technologies
Born from a world-leading research lab, Automata is making total workflow automation accessible to labs frustrated by the limitations of their own environment.
Accelerating the innovation evolution
When two architects from Zaha Hadid’s research lab first approached robotics, their idea was to explore applications specific to architectural engineering.
But they soon discovered that modern automation wasn’t just unnecessarily complex – it was actively restricting innovation. And not just within their industry – within many others too. It was clear that robotic automation was a field where their combined experience in computational research and design could make a real difference. Assembling a team of industry experts, Automata was founded, with a clear aim: to enable new opportunities for innovation with automation.
A clearer path to progress
Automata’s focus narrowed on an industry where they felt their expertise could have the most impact – life sciences, and particularly within biolab environments.
Since then, the team has been working closely with leading pathology labs to pioneer protocols that enable labs to scale with precision
Automata Labs is the product of that philosophy – simplifying lab environments and empowering the people working tirelessly in the pursuit of progress.