HackScience: Affordable Automation for All

HackScience following their initial hackathon in 2016.

HackScience following their initial hackathon in 2016.

HackScience are building open and financially accessible hardware tools to accelerate research. A huge step in the right direction given that there is a core problem with how lab science is currently done. This is the amount of time spent performing tasks that distract away from the actual research process. For example cell media may need to be changed or fly stocks need to be flipped. These are important tasks, vital for the maintenance of the research cycle, but these are laborious and do not generate the data that your research is truly focused on gathering. HackScience want to take a process such as the changing of cell culture media out of the hands of researchers so they can focus on what’s important – actually doing science! This not only allows the researcher to more appropriately spend their time while at work, but liberate the time spent on the project that frankly should be free time, so instead of coming into the lab on the weekend they can hit the pub…

HackScience is headed up by Ali Afshar, an Imperial College PhD researcher in the Centre for Plastic Electronics; and Ignacio Willats, a former DueDil product manager with a keen eye for new opportunities, having set up a hugely popular event ticketing site while at University.

The team came together while at Imperial College’s Create Lab. And they quickly put their diverse expertise to good use by engineering a hackathon they called ‘HackScience’. Here researchers from across Imperial’s faculty reversed pitched, highlighting their issues to a cohort of engineers who took to work tackling those research problems. One project was the production of a wireless cell density monitor, which allowed continuous delivery of data regarding the sample, this piece of kit gives the researcher an estimate of how many cells are in their culture. Typically a researcher would have to perform the time consuming task of removing a small sample and taking that to a dedicated piece of kit called a spectrophotometer.  Through this process, lab automation tools that can cost upwards of tens of thousands of pounds, were now created in a short period of time with costs that were orders of magnitude less.

HackScience's 'Automate' hackathon at Imperial College London. 

The great thing about this hackathon was that by focusing on a minimum viable product it showed just how accessible these tools could be. This approach is heavily Inspired by the maker movement, a term applied to a subculture of tinkerers and hackers keen on rapid prototyping. This movement runs the gamut from prop building, to new uses of Raspberry Pi. HackScience's value proposition is particularly exciting, with the ability to build inexpensive open source hardware that’s relevant to the experiments conducted in a specific lab, that have the capacity to be connected using HackScience’s IoT hub. This would allow for mobile monitoring of the experiments and tweaking of the parameters on the fly, while not requiring you physical presence at the lab bench.

HackScience were keen to get the perspective of active researchers, and their findings were startling. They found that 62% of researchers spent more than half their time doing manual lab processes. At our ‘Disrupting the Lab’ event back in December 2016, Ali shared with us the case of a malaria researcher at Imperial College, who loses up to three hours a day manually replenishing the growth media required to keep the cells he studies happy. Now this process could be automated but these tools are prohibitively expensive. An on premises automated cell culture machine could cost £250,000, and it bears mentioning that this is an enormous piece of equipment, as such, pretty impractical for the small cash-poor labs many scientists work in. Outsourcing could also be an option, Transcriptic for instance is an example of a cloud lab, whereby an off premises lab robot is assigned your protocol and sends back your data. However HackScience offers up another solution, their automated cell-feed system. A small scale syringe pump system that replenishes the medium, and can be monitored via an app.

Manual lab processes can be a time sink. Gaining that time back through automation can accelerate your research by allowing you to focus on what really matters for your work.

Hot off the heels of a very successful 2016 – being selected to join the BioStars 2017 cohort, winning the Imperial College Start 2016 competition, and winning the 2016 JISC Technology Startup competition - the team hits the ground running with a successful Digital Science Catalyst Grant application. In their Imperial Business School feature, they claim their 5 year plan is to become the home of affordable, open, and intelligent lab automation. Big plans indeed, but HackScience have the depth of expertise and the drive to push this forwards. They’ve gone from an ideation session and a 48hour hackathon to being a truly transformative force in lab automation.

Here’s to the next five years.