This article was updated to reflect the relationship between Incuvers, Spiderwort and the Pelling Lab.
An Ottawa-based biotech firm is solving a long-standing problem for research labs on a shoestring budget, all while making margins on its microwave-like machine.
Incuvers was spun out of Spiderwort, an Ottawa startup building on work done at the University of Ottawa's Pelling Lab. Lead scientist and laboratory namesake Andrew Pelling is perhaps best known as the senior Ted Fellow who captured the world’s attention by growing a human ear on an apple.
Spiderwort is taking that particular innovation to market while Incuvers, on the other hand, is focused on the process of growing and maturing cells in an experiment. To keep the process quick and controlled, researchers usually turn to incubators – vault-like machines that maintain the heat and atmospheric conditions surrounding the cell cultures under observation.
Research labs, be they in a university or private setting, tend to rely on large, communal incubators to mature cells for biological experiments. The communal aspect of these machines can lead to complications, cross-contamination and conflict within labs, says Incuvers CEO Sebastian Hadjiantoniou.
“Remember your good old roommate days? You’ve got 10 people using the same fridge, it gets dirty. Contamination becomes an issue. If you want your things secluded, it’s just not going to happen,” he says.
Incubators aren’t really fridges, though, they’re more like super-powered ovens – and you can think of Incuvers’ solution as the microwave version. For dedicated research labs that need their cellular materials secluded from other experiments but can’t afford the full-scale model, Incuvers has built a small-footprint incubator priced at a fraction of the usual $10,000 price tag.
Hadjiantoniou says that in the past, when faced with these restrictions, researchers would either share incubators and risk contamination or just not explore a sensitive line of experimentation. Now, with a device that can be modularized with custom sensors, he says a range of possible experiments are available even to labs on a budget.
Though biotech often has to pass strict limitations and years of trials before it can be sold, Incuvers is more or less able to take these devices right to market. Since none of the applications will be directly used for medical purposes, Hadjiantoniou says Incuvers just had to pass a few electrical standards and it was ready to sell.
“If there’s anything that goes into a human at one point, then you have to go through an entire regulation process. But our incubation is for research purposes only.”
Hadjiantoniou says the Pelling Lab has a bit of a “maker mentality” when it comes to science, which makes sense when you consider the line of thinking that leads someone to realize an apple could sufficiently replace cartilage.
“We did that in three hours. It would’ve taken someone else a week.”
The Incuvers team was able to build its first prototype for $400. It’s since been refined, and the startup has sold five of its incubators at a price of $3,000. Hadjiantoniou says they’re making margins of 70 per cent on each device, a figure he expects to grow as they scale up production.
Manufacturing is done entirely in Ottawa at the moment, and the company – a member of the Invest Ottawa accelerator program – has had a hand in prototyping from the MadeMill workshops at Bayview Yards.
Specifically, the company has used an in-house tool called a Voltera machine that automates the soldering process for the incubator’s circuit board. The alternative would be calling in a specialist to do the process by hand, with no guarantee of accuracy.
“We did that in three hours. It would’ve taken someone else a week,” says Hadjiantoniou.
In the future, the Incuvers device might do more than just help cells grow. Hadjiantoniou says there are plans in future iterations to include a camera inside the incubator to watch an experiment and help make sense of what happened, when.
That kind of visual data can provide answers to why one experiment out of 1,000 went wrong, or what reactions took place at which point in the cells’ incubation. Once the company gets enough of that data, it can develop algorithms that automatically identify these phenomenon and give researchers useful insights.