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August 29, 2018      

The pharmaceuticals industry is ideal for robotics, requiring precision, repeatability, and strict standards compliance. Scientists working on drug discovery, molecular diagnostics, and other research rely on integrators such as HighRes Biosolutions Inc. for flexible laboratory automation.

In 2004, the company was founded as High Resolution Engineering. Its modular workcells include a central robot “pod” surrounded by carts of devices and test materials, all connected with its patented MicroDock docking station and its Cellario scheduling software. The cells use a variety of robots and sensors.

HighRes Biosolutions has expanded from high-throughput screening and compound management to screening for viruses and bacteria, DNA extraction, and genotyping, among many other lab tasks. As the company puts it, it’s providing “automation to let scientists focus on science, while robots do the routine tasks.”

Robotics Business Review visited HighRes Biosolutions last month in Beverly, Mass.

“We’re focused on the biopharmaceutical market, not the clinical one,” said HighRes Biosolutions CEO Peter Harris. “We’ve developed a ‘pocket knife’ approach, and the dock includes power, Ethernet, and gas hookups. We couldn’t have built such a modular system 10 years ago.”

Prime rolls out

HighRes Biosolutions recently rolled out its Prime liquid handler system. Prime includes a compact, vertical design for handling and storing liquids, as well as a built-in collaborative robot and an intuitive user interface.

HighRes Biosolutions Peter Harris photo

Peter Harris, CEO of HighRes Biosolutions

“We been doing a slow rollout post-testing,” Harris said. “We’re working on getting deployments right, and demand is in excess of what we can currently comfortably take on right now.”

“Lab space is expensive, and the liquid handling market is confusing,” he added. “With our carousel design and decks of microplates, we can improve space utilization, accuracy, and data capture.”

HighRes Biosolutions’ system occupies one-third of the footprint of conventional equipment and has more storage capacity, said Harris. It also allows for more productive staff time and is less expensive than its competition, he noted.

Integrators still important

“Integrators know the most about whose robots are worth selecting,” said Harris. “We’re at the intersection of technology and what people want to use.”

“Mobile and collaborative robot hardware is already well-engineered and becoming commoditized,” he said. “Customers care about where robots add value.”

The biopharmaceutical research community is already a sophisticated user of automation, Harris explained. However, the initial challenge for HighRes Biosolutions was developing and marketing the dock architecture and software interfaces for maximum flexibility.

“With as many as 2 million compounds a week to screen, the real problems were motivating companies to become more flexible,” Harris said. “The cost of discovery for a simple molecule can be $3 billion and take 12 years, and much of that cost is failure — up to 40 times.”

Parallel processing part of scientific renaissance

“There has been a renaissance in biopharmaceutical science methods, thanks to the Human Genome Project and CRISPR,” Harris said. “This has implications for cancer treatment, with rearranging a patient’s cells, and synthetic biology.”

HighRes Biosolutions modularity image

A modular automation system for a lab helps scientists change test processes quickly. Credit: HighRes Biosolutions

Among other applications, HighRes Biosolutions automates polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and cell-culture testing. This allows a single copy to be copied thousands of times, accelerating the process of industrial molecular testing.

“With a combination of parallel processing and relentlessness, workflow is more important than robot speed,” Harris observed. “Our systems include line-level loading and peel-and-seal testing.”

During RBR’s visit to HighRes Biosolutions’ 80,000-sq.-ft. headquarters, staffers were preparing a large compound management system with two robot arms for a large pharmaceuticals customer with a huge central library.

Harris said his company uses robots from KUKA and Precise Automation because of their high performance characteristics.

AI aids drug discovery

“Machine learning has powerful implications for some aspects of drug discovery,” Harris said. “While I’m bearish on silicon-based simulation, I’m bullish on machine learning for reading images. This overlaps with digital pathology.”

For instance, Recursion Pharmaceuticals Inc. last month received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Phase 1 clinical trials of a drug for cerebral cavernous malformation.

The Salt Lake City, Utah-based company uses HighRes Biosolutions’ automation to generate data, or 10 million cellular images per week, for its own cloud-based machine learning and neural networks to analyze.

“With machine learning and closed-loop control, robotics can generate data to be analyzed in real time,” Harris said.

HighRes Biosolutions builds a business

“We’re focused on the biopharmaceuticals market, not the clinical one,” said Harris. The business is growing by 70%, he added.

HighRes Biosolutions has a staff of 150 and plans to hire 25 people this year. It has expanded both its hardware and software teams.

“While Prime sales could double the company’s size, we want to do things in a controlled way,” Harris said. “We want to be disruptive in price and value.”

“We’re not a technology seeking use cases,” he said. “A barrier to this market is that sales and applications people need to know the science.”

At the same time, enterprises need to understand how automation should be part of their overall strategy, Harris said.

Note: Editor Keith Shaw contributed to this article.