eLabBlog

The Life Scientist’s Guide to Building a Successful Biofoundry

By Zareh Zurabyan 6 min read 14 Aug 2023

Biofoundries are a relatively new player in biotechnology, but they’ve rapidly become hubs of innovation and scientific advancement. These multidisciplinary centres combine concepts from computer sciences, engineering, and biology to transform basic research findings into widespread societal change. With biofoundries positioned to solve global issues, including pandemic preparedness, we’ve put together the following guide on the keys to building a successful biofoundry.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is a Biofoundry?

A biofoundry is an integrated facility that combines biological, chemical biology, and engineering systems with tools like automation, high-throughput measurement, integrated data analysis, and artificial intelligence (AI) to enable feedback loops that facilitate iterative end-to-end cycles of design, build, test, and learn.

7 Guidelines for Successful Biofoundry Operations

In a multidisciplinary setting like this, you can imagine many difficulties that hinder progress can arise. Chief among them is data connectivity and ensuring that all instruments, personnel, and software communicate effectively. 

So, how do you navigate those challenges and ensure that your bio-foundry operations continue smoothly?

Often, labs throw a lot of money into purchasing the latest toys and assume that everything can be automated. But automation starts with a strong foundation of standardised practices.  Biofoundries must have an overall workflow schema that is tested and optimised before the fancy toys even enter the lab.

Here are 7 steps to building a connected, successful biofoundry.

Build an Infrastructure

Biofoundry success starts with a framework that supports all personnel, equipment, and software. When creating your infrastructure, consider the following:

  • Standardisation: As simple as developing naming conventions for samples, services, equipment, projects, and programs is, it can go a long way in setting the stage for your biofoundry to grow into a functional ecosystem. Standardisation plays into how you manage your data, accessibility, and collaboration between departments and teams. 
  • Scalability: You’re not just planning for now but five years from now. What will the new liquid handling robots look like, and what new functionalities will they have? How can AI and ML be used for data analysis based on how you collect your data? More importantly, what do your organisation’s needs look like now and in the future? If one robot breaks and a new one comes in, or one lab tech leaves and another one comes in, how short will your downtime be, and how fast will you be able to get back to full speed? Think about whether or not you’ll be able to expand your workflows and instruments as you grow.
  • Interdisciplinary expertise: The future is collaborative. And so is the present. Traditionally, chemists and biologists worked separately. It is the same for IT folks, computational biologists, and bioinformaticians. Each individual must have interdisciplinary expertise to work with people from different research backgrounds. Personnel must also have exceptional project management skills to ensure no data loss and full ownership of projects. 

Spend Strategically

Fancy robots cost a lot of money. Be sure to evaluate your biofoundry’s values. Do you need to pay for that liquid handler that is accurate to within 0.000001 mL? If so, make it a strategic purchase, as part of your business plan. 

If not, there are many other reliable and less expensive robots out there that can get the job done for you. 

Other budget considerations include:

  • Training and education: There will be a constant need to train and educate. A strong budget for these initiatives is essential for your organisation’s and personnel’s continued growth.
  • External services and collaborations: Developing relationships with business partners like DNA sequencing companies or custom manufacturers will enable your biofoundry to expand capabilities and increase efficiency.
  • Office and lab space: Using Boston as an example, lab and office space in Kendall Square is pretty saturated, and the cost of office space is extremely high. It is important to consider the location for biofoundry positioning, client generation, staff travel, and more. In Boston specifically, Watertown, Woburn, and Natick have emerging biotech scenes with 40% less associated cost, so considering other areas outside of the “limelight” may be in your budget’s best interest.

Follow Regulatory Guidelines

GxP or 21CFR Part11 compliance might not be necessary for your lab; however, ensuring you don’t step out of compliance will bring more trust and accuracy to your workflows. 

Compliance with specific regulations can also open inroads to fruitful collaborations. Consider GDPR, CLIA, and HIPAA compliance to attract partnerships with hospitals and other healthcare companies. 

Forge a Tribe with a Culture of Collaboration

As remote work has taken over, prioritising company culture has fallen by the wayside. People are getting fired on Zoom and sending passive-aggressive emails about a minor conflict when a face-to-face conversation over coffee will do. Thoughtful and conscious communication has disappeared. But in a multidisciplinary environment, like a biofoundry, openness to transparent communication must be in the organisation’s DNA. 

Establishing stand-up meetings, consistent training regimens, and facilitating a culture of incentivized ideas and suggestions will go a long way. There are always great ideas for optimization that frequently get lost in the mix due to poor communication or fear of rejection. 

Communication about operations can also be streamlined and clarified through digital platforms, where workflows and protocols can be accessed, tracked, and updated to maintain and optimise biofoundry performance.

Adjust to New Tech and Evaluate

We frequently mistake looking at a period of plateau in performance as a “good enough” result when, in reality, it is just short-term stability. In the age of AI/ML, where software and robotics are updated a minimum of 4 times a year, training, educating, and motivating staff to stay updated with the latest technologies is essential. This encourages a culture of constant improvement and experimentation. But, be sure to evaluate how these adjustments affect your performance: If a new tool isn’t suiting you, move on and look for another solution.

Optimise for Walkaway Time

One of the most underestimated tools in biofoundries is automation. Your robot may be fancy, but if you have to tend it every 5 minutes or don’t trust its performance, then you’re not using automation to its full potential. Measure the success of your automation based on the time you can use your instrument with confidence that a protocol will run precisely as you intend. 

Develop a Data Strategy

The most important aspect of biofoundry automation is developing a digital lab and data strategy. In short, that means how you will digitise your biofoundry’s operations.

Defining a strong sample strategy (i.e., A systematic plan for handling, processing, and analysing samples) right from the beginning is imperative to successful lab operations. Next, consider the data that will be generated from sample analysis. 

Key questions include: 

  • What instruments will be used to generate data? Are they ISO certified, secure, and compliant?
  • Does your digital platform (e.g., ELN, LIMS, etc.) have an open API/SDK for integrations and data analysis? Can it integrate with your favourite robots and other software you use in the lab?
  • Is your platform future-proof?  Will you outgrow it once you scale operations?

Conclusion

In an article in Nature about Flagship Pioneering (an early backer of Moderna), the consensus is clear: Biotech innovators derive numerous benefits from software that connects their operations. Digital lab platforms that enhance collaboration between chemists, biologists, bioinformaticians, and other biofoundry personnel are becoming the norm in our post-pandemic world. 

And the benefits are tangible. Flagship Pioneering’s Aram Adourian says, “In our groups, experiments are often planned between wet lab teams and computational teams, enabling a sort of iterative, back-and-forth optimization process to address the biological questions at hand.” 

In a biofoundry, this is the fabric that holds everything together! 

To find out more and get a detailed free consultation on managing your biofoundry better and defining its Digital Lab Strategy, schedule a personal demo today!  

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