Biological Automation as Agile, Scalable and Reliable as Digital Electronics – Volta Labs Designs and Develops Automation Tools to Make Impossible Biotechnologies Possible

By Brent MacDonald – Principal @ Rising Tide VC

As biology pervades many aspects of life, advanced automation tools are in demand. Volta Labs is an MIT Media Lab spin-off company that makes programmable fluidic chips for biological automation. To build this next generation automation tool, the Volta Labs team combines principles of computing with material science, biochemistry, and genetic engineering.

Current methods to develop new biological processes and subsequently scale them is impeded by the inertia associated with current technologies -- on the one hand the physical hardware is error-prone, expensive and lacks scalable manufacturing and the other hand there is no unified language in creating, managing and sharing biological workflows. This limits our ability to manipulate biological samples beyond a certain scale -- we now have "Tyranny of numbers" problem with biology.

Volta Labs CEO Udayan Umapathi

Today, DNA sequencing has seen a significant drop-in time and cost over the past two decades. However, the largest bottleneck in the process lies in the sequencing sample preparation step, ahead of loading samples on a sequencer. This has prevented sequencing costs from decreasing even more significantly due to the cost of re-agents and the time taken to manually prep samples (high labor cost).[1] Volta Labs has built a platform to customize and automate biological workflows, at high throughput, for biofoundries. With its ‘DMF Platform’, the company is addressing one of the few bottlenecks left in DNA sequencing – sample prep automation. Volta Lab’s technology enables ‘droplet manipulation’ on silicon logic chips. The workflow is determined by software, not hardware, and users can encode end-to-end workflows on a single chip. The DMF Platform can integrate with most lab automation and the sensor integration is tightly coupled with software for workflow monitoring and optimization. Some companies are addressing the problem by developing cheaper re-agents, but Volta Lab’s approach reduces re-agent cost by reducing workable volumes and cuts out the high cost of labor that goes into the process (~ two days and many intensive steps). Beyond this first application, Volta Lab’s vision centers around scale and high throughput, which will enable its deployment in biofoundry level environments. With the rise of synthetic biology, technologies that increase scale and throughput while reducing iteration time and cost, are necessary for industrial level processes. Ultimately, Volta Lab’s vision is to enable biological automation at the scale of sequencing of millions of genomes per day.

Why We Are Excited:

Today, current automation tool solutions have large upfront cost, limited integration of functionalities for assay workflow, and lack interoperability. Hardware is generally a one-off requiring a unique device for each discrete workflow and the large number of moving parts poses obstacles in manufacturing and substantial inertia for development of new hardware. Acoustic liquid handlers and pressure driven microfluidics are also not generalizable and do not scale at large complexities. Volta Labs is focused on using programmable water droplets to automate and digitize biology. Its larger vision is to make biological automation as agile, scalable and reliable as digital electronics.

[1] In the field of biology, tool compounds are also important reagents in biology; they are small molecules or biochemicals like siRNA or antibodies that are known to affect a given biomolecule—for example, a drug target—but are unlikely to be useful as drugs themselves and are often starting points in the drug discovery process.