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User-friendly lab robots for life scientists
April 9, 2023

Background and Context

Founded in 2014, Opentrons makes robotic laboratory equipment designed to automate lab work. The company makes open source, flexible, user-friendly robots for life scientists. Their mission is to provide the scientific community with a common platform to easily share protocols and reproduce each other’s results. Their robots automate experiments that would otherwise be done by hand, allowing scientists to spend more time working on higher-value efforts.

Q&A with co-founder Chiu Chau 

Opentrons co-founder Chiu Chau

Why did you start Opentrons?

During four years at my previous biotech startup, I witnessed the rise of 3D printers. Based on my previous experience in hacking, I purchased a few and began learning how to use them on YouTube. The motherboards of a few of these printers were broken, which resulted in a $10,000 repair bill. My solution was to build printers that were cheaper and more efficient. That’s how I came to build my first DIY liquid handling robot. That project led to the creation of Opentrons.

How did the HAX program help?

HAX had opened my eyes to a whole world of supply chains in Shenzhen. In spite of being raised in Hong Kong, I have not been back to China until I joined HAX and spent some time in Shenzhen. The speed and supply chain in China has been a valuable lesson for me.

This experience enabled my startup to scale and prototype at a fast pace, which is imperative for an early stage startup. 

Our basement project turned into a unicorn-status business that has impacted the lives of millions.

Thinking back on Opentrons, what was the most decisive factor in the company’s success?

Opentrons’ vertical integration was the most decisive factor in its success. We have a factory that builds our product, R&D, sales and support all in the same place, which gives us a competitive edge. Once you have a low cost model like that, it’s extremely difficult to displace. 

What was the biggest lesson you learned in building Opentrons?

Make sure you hire the best people. Become an expert at telling stories.

What do you think will be Opentrons biggest impact on the world?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Opentrons played a significant role in scaling up testing. Those who are willing to learn were able to purchase our robot and ship it worldwide. Millions of tests were performed in Spain and Italy. More than 11 million tests were done on Opentrons’ PRL in New York City. We performed tests day in and day out in China. Our basement project turned into a unicorn-status business that has impacted the lives of millions.