At The Heart Of Revolutionary Product Design: Empathy

By Craig Vincze, CEO & Cofounder, Clickbio

Have you ever set out to design something? Something simple, for example; let’s say it’s a tree house for the kids. A lot of adults would simply walk outside, check out the tree in question, maybe take a few measurements, and then set to work sketching out a design for a treehouse based on a generic idea we all grew up with about what treehouses should look like. Problem is, that’s not how effective design works. After all, your kids (the end-users) may have a completely different idea of what a treehouse should look like — or what it should be used for. What if they want a pirate ship in the sky — or a lunar command module? You’d be well-served to spend some time finding out what they want and need before you buy the lumber and start cutting and nailing away.

If you’ve ever seen Disney’s 1960 movie Swiss Family Robinson, the shipwrecked dad and sons of the family start building a treehouse to live in without any input from the lady of the family — the mother, Elizabeth — and as a result, the first iteration is a disaster: unsafe, unsightly, and uninhabitable. Only after getting some intensive feedback (and a piece of her mind) from Elizabeth do the men manage to construct a safe, beautiful, and comfortable treehouse that the whole family loves — the same treehouse millions of tourists see every day at Disneyland. The moral of this story, then, is that good design starts with empathy: seeking out, listening to, and fully understanding what the end-user wants and needs from the product before the design process even begins.

The lab automation industry is filled with brilliant scientists developing innovative chemistries and experimental designs to solve complex and challenging problems in their respective fields. Many of these scientists use lab automation on a regular basis to achieve better consistency, higher throughput, and scalability. As a result, the lab automation industry has seen tremendous innovation over the past 20 years, with major advancements in liquid-handling robotics, chemistry, and molecular biology. So, what about innovation in that other mainstay of the lab automation industry — the microplate? Well, for many years, microplate innovation seemed to have become marginalized by market forces — market forces that appear to have led to a dramatic drop in empathy for end-users. That good news is, all that is now changing for the better.

The earliest microplate was created in 1951 by Dr. Gyula Takatsy of Hungary, who machined six rows of twelve "wells" in Lucite for his personal lab work. The original well-plate we think of today was patented by Cetus® in 1980, and while many variations exist, advancements and innovation in the ideation, design, and manufacture of microplates has evolved much more slowly and in a much less flexible way than advancements in chemistries and lab-automation robotics over the same time period. While the reasons for this lag are many, I suspect the main culprit in the microplate-development dilemma may have resulted from the consolidation in the industry by large corporations who, through acquisitions and mergers, assimilated many microplate patent-holders, to the point where off-the-shelf labware became a commodity, and it was no longer economically expedient for microplate innovators to sit down with research scientists to find out how they work with microplates, and what could be done to make them better. “Good enough is good enough” seems to have become the mantra, especially for off-the-shelf consumables that meet the needs of 90% of researchers doing lab automation. Nevertheless, empathy as an approach to innovative labware design is not only a good idea; it’s critical to the pursuit of developing microplates and other labware that can help scientists outstrip their competitors and bring discoveries to light and products to market faster than ever before.

To illustrate this point, let’s start with the classic problem of the deeper deep-well plate, a window into the world of stagnation in labware innovation. This problem has been around for decades, and yet it has never been solved — until recently. Anyone who’s worked in a lab has felt this pain: You can choose from many different 96-well plates, but they all hold about 2 mL per well. Unfortunately, your assay requires 2.2 mL per well. Your only choice, then, is to use two deep-well plates with 1.1 ml in each well, because — even after you’ve done an exhaustive search of the web and asked your distributor for a solution — there is simply no such thing as a “deeper” deep-well plate on the market. So, you use two deep-well plates for every assay, which doubles your consumables cost — and cuts your throughput in half. After experiencing this very thing myself in graduate school, and after listening to other research scientists (that’s the empathy part) complain about it for more than a decade when I worked in the lab automation industry, my partner and I decided there must be a better way, and our company, Clickbio, was born. (Our deeper deep-well plate is now patent-pending and will be released in Q2 2017.)

What sets Clickbio apart, I believe, is our focus on empathy with research scientists, and a broad knowledge of how our customers’ up- and down-stream processes work, which enables us to ask better questions in order to design better solutions. Through our conversations, we’ve found research scientists who have an idea for an experiment, but the consumable labware to perform it simply isn’t available, or the experiment in question might require modifications to common off-the-shelf labware, but the manufacturer of that labware doesn’t offer customization services. Or, if they do offer customization, the cost is far beyond the reach of most labs. This needless friction in the ideation – design – manufacturing of smarter labware slows down scientific progress, delays discoveries, and wastes precious human capital.

This is how ideation – design – manufacturing (IDM) works at Clickbio. During the Ideation phase, we actively engage scientists with probing questions; we listen for the pain points, look for obvious “bottlenecks,” e.g, “if only there were a piece of labware that did this!” and brainstorm with the client about possible solutions. We then take this information back to Clickbio’s experienced design engineers for further ideation around solutions to the problems as we understand them. Then, entering the Design phase, our engineering team conceptualizes and creates a design that uniquely solves the problem — and as a proof of concept, we rapidly prototype a 3D printed piece of smarter labware for the customer’s internal review and feedback. From there, we iterate designs and prototypes until it meets or exceeds the customer’s expectations. Upon final prototype approval, our design team moves on to the Manufacturing phase, where we engineer a final manufacturing solution to produce this new, smarter labware in quantity, ultimately delivering ANSI/SLAS, ISO 9001 grade injection-molded parts to the customer according to an agreed-upon timeframe.

The next time you’re facing the frustration of off-the-shelf labware, consider contacting Clickbio. We start with empathy to deliver smarter labware solutions that will help you bring discoveries to light and products to market faster than ever before.

Top 5 things to consider with Custom Labware projects

By Mykle Gaynor, CTO, Clickbio

Labware can be optimized for your application. It is easier than you think. The ability to make something new that meets a need in your lab can improve the quality and quantity of work you can accomplish. Every lab has different drivers:

  • Saving money on unrecoverable reagents. 
  • Decreasing liquid transfer times with optimized plate formats. 
  • Throwing less plastic in the landfill. 

What is your driver?

Here are the top five things I suggest to people looking to deploy a custom piece of labware.

1.       Define your specifications

Everyone has heard this. Everyone has been asked for specs. It is often done at first on a napkin. Specifications are key. Having a starting point for different people to work around is the bedrock of a custom project.  The more upfront thought that goes into the specs, the smoother the entire process often is. 

We have found the best way to activate the ideation has been with a simple questionnaire, which is easy to answer and thought-provoking.  

2.       Look at big picture timelines

The need for custom solutions usually stems from a large, long term need for change. Make sure the timelines for large projects are clearly understood and your deadlines are transparent to everyone involved as soon as possible.

Working back from the required completion date often goes a long way in determining when a given project needs to start.

3.       Have the right people at the table

Often there are not enough people involved as early as they should be.  Labware often requires input from your entire team.

  • How is it ordered? 
  • How is it stored? 
  • How is it packaged? 
  • How is the project paid for? 
  • How is the end product used? 
  • How much documentation/certification/validation is needed? 

All of these are legitimate questions that often need to come from different people. Do not be afraid to invite more people to the table.

4.       Keep the project flexible

 Every project encounters bumps. Try to be ready for them. There is the chance of a specification being overlooked or internal delays that slow the project validation down. The more flexibility you are able to maintain, the smoother the project will turn out.

5.       Think outside the box

 The point of a custom project is to make something new that solves a problem that is not currently being solved. Be creative. Do not limit your ideas to slight variations of products you find in a catalog. Ask the big questions ... and reap the big rewards of a satisfying custom project.

At the end of the day, coming up with new solutions that solve problems can be very rewarding.  

Let me know what you think.

Custom Microplate

Automation or Sneakerware?

While at Gibco our Senior VP introduced an interesting concept of Sneakerware to me. Sneakerware involved avoiding automation to gain a significant benefit in the efficiency of a lab. 

Our dilemma was with bar coding at the time. The thought of the day way to convert all of the 96-well and 6-well plate feeding and passaging in the lab to systems with barcodes. The idea was that the new Hamilton STAR systems we had could be fitted with bar code readers, and by using complex programming, all of the plates could be tracked.  We even went as far as exploring complete LIMS solutions from Elsevier and IDBS.  

Our team gathered data and arguments, assembled a number of PowerPoints and headed into the VP's office.  

He was a good VP. Heard us out. Asked to see a plate with a only bar code on it. Looked at us and asked, "What's in this plate?"

With a long pause we told him we did not know as we could not read the bar code yet.

His point was made with a stack of 10 plates and a sharpie. A brief label on the top plate and a diagonal line down the side of the other 9 was all it took.  

"It's been that way for years and it works." he remarked. Well said.

Instead of large complex methods we chunked up the processes on the liquid handler. Brought a max of 10 plates at a time to passage then returned them by foot to the incubator.

That mix of Automation and Sneakerware did a number of things for the lab, including:

  • Made the Automated Liquid Handler more accessible to more scientists.
  • Reduced the complexity of the code by over half.
  • Allowed for manual manipulation of the plates when the Hamilton was being used by others.

Many things can be done with automation. Simply put, some things should not be done through automation.

What's better, Sneakerware or Automation?  

Hard to say. I do know that in the case of Gibco, the mix of the two worked out great when we used the right labware and technique for the application.


Finding and Putting Together Solutions for Your Lab

I have been in the industry for a while now.  Worked on the bench, oversaw projects, worked for a number of leading device companies and now a number of years in running a consumables company.  Every day I get to learn something new.

There have been a couple common questions I try to ask just about every person I meet, "How do you solve your problems?"  As you could imagine, everyone has different problems and everyone looks for their solutions in different places.  

As a founder of a labware consumables company the conversations have been directed towards where we are growing our company.  What has surprised me is how the answers have been changing over time.

Back when I started working on the bench the go to information place was the seasoned scientist in the lab you worked in.   They more often than not could rattle off a part and part number that allowed me to get done what I needed.  

Later on things changed and grew beyond the traditional capacity of the environment I was in.  Picking up the phone and calling a distributor with a bag of solutions was where I turned.  More often than not I would engage in a thoughtful conversation and be able to apply an existing solution from the distributor to my problem.

Now I am interacting with more and more people needing solutions that can not be provided be either an internal Sr. Scientist type or the product bank from a distributor with a bag of parts.  The web is the most common place I hear people starting their difficult search now.  Tecan as an example offers unique adapters for their automation platforms.  The SLAS page has a network of companies providing unique solutions.  Even searching around the web sites small device companies like INHECO has helped out many people I know find specific nuggets of information they needed.

It sounds obvious, as the wealth of information moves from individuals to the global web their is developing a double edge sword effect of shifting knowledge.  More and more can be sought after online while less is help locally.  

There will always be value in a conversation with a distributor or coworker. I feel the conversation about your problem often helps you revisit your problem.  That act of reflection can be powerful.

I don't see this trend changing anytime soon and plan on making sure the solutions Click Bio offers is found in all the places people look.

What am I missing?  Where will scientists turn to in the future to keep learning something new everyday?


Is Lab Automation becoming less complicated?

Most of us have seen the growth over the past few decades.  Bigger, better and more expensive equipment has become more and more popular.  Large integrations.  Large LIMS systems.  Big data.  Big inner-company automation groups. 

Before founding Click Bio my assumption has been bigger is better for a long time.  Recently while in a lab in San Francisco I kicked up a conversation about a low cost automated platform.  Open Trons came up in conversations.  If I heard correctly, $3,000 for a 1 channel robot, $4,000 for a 2 arm robot with 1 & 8 channels.  Open source software, online configuration, looks to have ~15 deck positions.  I was impressed.

What does that mean?  Swimming in the other direction from the large robot companies can really shake things up.  No integrations, no LIMS, no big data, no automation teams....  every one could in theory have their own little robot.  It is cheap.  It looks easy.  

My coworker and I brought up a major benefit, you now longer need to be running a large application to have tracking and verification for your liquid transfers.  Every plate, tip and liquid can be addressed by your own personal robot.  

Does it work?  Does it work well?  Will it catch on?  What do you think? I am excited to find out.