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.