From Concept to Commercialization: Making the Smart Lab
Meghan Brown posted on February 02, 2018 | 5972 views

An engineering education is all about teaching students how to identify a problem, devise a solution and implement said solution. Ideally, these young engineers take what they have learned and use it to solve problems in the real world—maybe even commercializing it.

This was the case for electrical engineering graduate Spin Wang from MIT. What began during his undergraduate studies as a way to monitor his own lab instruments has developed into an exciting startup company providing monitoring solutions for large labs across the country.

That company is called TetraScience.

(Image courtesy of TetraScience.)
(Image courtesy of TetraScience.)

From One Lab to Another Lab

Despite the advances in so-called “smart” technology for personal and industrial use over the last few years, somehow this trend left the research laboratory behind. Spreadsheets, individually tailored software platforms and, in many cases, pen and paper remain the mainstay tools for data recording and collection in most industry and academic research labs.

Beginning in his undergraduate years at Cornell University, Wang became increasingly frustrated at the time and effort required to monitor his lab equipment and record the data—much of which had to be done manually. He needed to regularly monitor as many as 10 instruments at a time, such as signal generators, power meters, power amplifiers and frequency counters, for his research in high-energy physics.

At the time, Wang developed a system connecting and controlling the instruments in his lab, which collected all the data in one place.

TetraScience co-founder, Spin Wang, a graduate of electrical engineering and computer science. (Image courtesy of TetraScience.)

TetraScience co-founder, Spin Wang, a graduate of electrical engineering and computer science. (Image courtesy of TetraScience.)

Later, during his master’s degree spent studying microelectromechanical systems, Wang worked on sensing technologies and processing of radio frequency signals. This is where Wang met his eventual collaborators Alok Tayi and Salvatore Sarso. During a 3D printing project at MIT’s Media Lab, the three bonded over their shared dislike of the inefficient data collection tools available for lab work.

“We felt the pain of manually tracking data and not having a consistent interface for all our equipment,” Wang explained.

And this was just at the relatively small labs at MIT. The problems of manual data collection are even more onerous at the scale of large pharmaceutical or biotech firms. These places can have hundreds or thousands of instruments with different hardware and software. These labs still have humans checking equipment, recording data and manually inputting it into dozens of separate researching systems—which inevitably leads to errors.

All three of them agreed that there must be a better solution: Smart Labs were the new frontier.

Introducing the Smart Lab

They launched TetraScience inspired by this need and working off the smaller-scale success of Wang’s earlier explorations into connecting his own lab equipment.

Their system developed into a data integration platform capable of connecting disparate pieces of lab equipment and software systems and then aggregating the data from all these sources into a single cloud-based location accessible through a control dashboard.

“Existing software and hardware systems in labs cannot communicate with each other in a consistent way,” Wang said. “Data flows through systems in a very fragmented manner and there are a lot of siloed data sets. Humans manually copy and paste information or write it down on paper, which is a lengthy process that’s error prone.”

The core of their system is an Internet of Things (IoT) hub that can plug into most pieces of lab equipment—such as freezers, ovens, incubators, scales, pH meters, syringe pumps and autoclaves, to name a few. A range of different types of relevant data can be collected by the hub, including humidity, temperature, gas concentrations, oxygen levels, vibration, light intensity and airflow. All this data flows to a centralized, cloud-based integration platform, where users can access it from a central dashboard.

The cloud dashboard enables users to monitor their equipment in real time and will sent an alert when there are deviations from specified conditions or inefficiencies over time. Data can be presented in whatever way the user prefers, including graphs, percentages or numerically.

“Our technology is establishing a ‘data highway’ system between different entities, software and hardware, within life sciences labs,” said Wang.

Testing the System with Honeybee Hive Monitoring

The first true test of their system was within the Media Lab, where Wang, Sarso and Tayi provided a version of their system to a research team studying beehives and how hives could be integrated into building infrastructure. Because bees are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity in the area around their hives, manual monitoring at the levels required would be nearly impossible.

By using Wang’s system, the researchers were able to capture all the data they required without having to manually check the hives and record the information.

Since commercialization, the TetraScience platform has been adopted by a number of leading biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Although, to date, the startup’s focus has been on these industries, Wang and his team believe that the versatility of their system could also be beneficial to other industries such as oil and gas, beer and wine brewing, food manufacturing and chemical production.

“These industries all use similar instruments to life sciences labs and produce the same kind of data, such as monitoring the pH of beer,” Wang said. “So we will get into those industries in the future.”

To learn more about Wang’s system and its developmental journey, visit the MIT Media Lab and TetraScience websites.

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