As the life sciences sector grapples with a volatile market and a dwindling venture capital pool, startups are being challenged to deliver more with fewer resources. This has led to an increasing adoption of robotics and automation technologies to streamline lab operations. Skyquest, a consulting firm, anticipates a surge in investments in this sector, predicting the global market for such technologies to hit $10 billion by 2030. This growth is expected to be primarily driven by North America and major tech and biotech companies such as Thermo Fisher and Roche.
Over the years, the life sciences industry has been incorporating more technology into its operations, particularly automation and robotics, leading to the emergence of high-tech labs. This trend is set to gain momentum, potentially transforming the real estate needs of lab tenants and possibly altering the demand for new lab spaces. Startups are optimistic that automation and robotics can enhance lab efficiency.
“Outsourcing, robotization, miniaturization are impacting all businesses, ours included,” says Llewellyn Cox, CEO of Lab Launch. His company, which has developed two incubation and postgraduate lab spaces in Los Angeles, sees companies increasingly seeking smaller spaces. Cox notes that labs today are less about manual tasks like stirring beakers and mixing solutions than they were five to ten years ago.
The rise in processing power and the promise of personalized cures through emerging cell and gene therapies have made it possible to test large libraries of cells, biologics, and cures through systematic experimentation. Firms aiming to achieve approval and testing milestones can leverage machines and machine learning to replicate tests faster and with fewer errors. The testing and validation process for new cures costs approximately $2 billion on average.
Several large firms have already reaped significant benefits from incorporating artificial intelligence and automation in their labs. Moderna used AI to optimize mRNA sequencing, which played a crucial role in developing a coronavirus vaccine for testing in just 42 days. The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) has been awarding million-dollar grants for years to expedite biomanufacturing and develop more accurate computer sensors for drug development and manufacturing. Merck has invested in robotic process automation.
The Royal Marsden in the UK plans to install automated clinical genomic testing by 2024, with six robots slated to expedite genetic screening services. “Labs across the country are struggling with space constraints and a shortage of skilled staff,” says Nick Pattinson, vice president of product strategy for Automata. “They are being asked to significantly increase their output.”
However, some analysts like Ariel Gruswitz from Facility Logix LLC believe that the impact of this technology on space planning will only be seen years into the future. Meanwhile, the life sciences real estate market has seen increased supply recently, with moderate demand leading to more rent concessions, easing some pressure to optimize space.
New York-based biotech firm Neochromosome is one company that has benefited from automation. Co-founder and CEO Leslie Mitchell says that automation and software have sped up some processes by 10 or even 100 times. She believes that firms that adopt automation early on will continue investing in technology throughout their lifecycle.
In short, automation is not just a trend but a game-changer in the life sciences industry. As startups continue to leverage robotics and programming languages to streamline their operations, we can expect to see a significant shift in the industry’s approach towards efficiency, productivity, and space utilization. With the right blend of electronics, computers, coding, and automation technologies, life sciences startups can look forward to a future of exponential growth.