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Biohackers at the gate: The untold story of how DIY experimenters waged war on COVID

Emily Baumgaertner, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In 2014, the Opentrons invention was accepted into Haxlr8r, a summer-long hardware accelerator in Shenzhen, China, that turned the robot into a mass-manufacturable product. Then, on Halloween, at a microbe-engineering competition in Boston two worlds briefly crossed orbits.

Dressed in a blue sport coat, Special Agent You was mingling among thousands in the convention center. Canine was there with his new robot prototype. He was hard to miss, wearing a glow-in-the-dark skeleton costume, sneakers, a boyish haircut — and a big grin.

"He came right over, and he said, 'Can I show you what we got?'" You recalled.

That day, Opentrons launched its Kickstarter campaign. Its success meant the robot team had to expand outside Genspace. Its members migrated down to the fourth floor at 33 Flatbush, beside a Marxist journal's headquarters, the windowless suites stacked floor to ceiling with socialist theory books and mechanical arms.

After getting into Y Combinator — a seed accelerator used to launch startups such as Airbnb and DoorDash — Opentrons brought on Jonathan Brennan-Badal as its new chief executive. Brennan-Badal had helped ComiXology, a digital comic book platform, outpace Apple and Amazon. He'd transformed one industry and wanted to do it again.

As Opentrons published papers and coded robots, seeking the right market fit, none of its biohackers knew a disaster of graphic novel proportions was about to unfold.

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The American health care system was in free fall in February 2020. The novel coronavirus was rippling across the nation, and the only way to slow transmission was to detect cases. But budgets had been gutted. Government testing criteria were too narrow. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's assay fell flat. At the pinnacle of all the federal agencies, President Donald Trump simply proposed a biohacking solution of his own: Try injecting yourself with Clorox.

Traditional companies such as LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics vowed to test and isolate coronavirus patients across the country. But their supply chains buckled, and with them any hope of delivering test results while they were still relevant. By late March, more than 150,000 samples had piled up at Quest unprocessed — about half of the total number the company had received.

The fragmented and siloed world of laboratory science became the crux of the crisis; the fate of millions rested upon hand pipettes and fax machines. But when the Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorizations to allow more competition, the regulatory barriers once faced by Opentrons evaporated overnight. The company shipped hundreds of OT-2 robots to U.S. cities and beyond. They were deployed to pop-up labs built in shipping containers in London. At one hospital in Spain, grateful lab technicians named each robot after a loved one lost to COVID-19: Joan. Javier. Paco.

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Today, behind the scenes of America's COVID-19 testing infrastructure, OT-2 robots are helping screen millions for the virus: elementary school students, nursing home residents, patients headed in for surgery. The tests often cost as little as a dollar per person, resulting in savings of $150 million.

Customers include the Mayo Clinic, Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, MIT and even BioNTech, the German company that developed a COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer. More than 2,000 scientists from across the world are now plugged into Opentrons hardware-software ecosystem. Its largest impact has been in New York City, where a 5,000-square-foot facility can handle up to 50,000 patient samples per day.

"A lab is an orchestra of machines," said Julian Moncada, the company's head of strategy and innovation, who works among a staff of 120 scurrying in blue coats and gloves along an around-the-clock assembly line. "But the software is the conductor."

Since January 2021, OpenTrons has sequenced 25,000 genomes from positive coronavirus test samples in New York, helping scientists detect new variants: in February, the beta variant; in April, the delta variant; in June, the delta-plus — a virus with a blend of mutations first detected in India and South Africa.

Opentrons — which has grown to more than 500 employees — wasn't the only biohacking firm to mobilize against COVID-19. A generation of disrupters has emerged from the shadows. When a respirator company depleted its inventory but refused to share its design, startup engineers built them out of snorkeling masks and 3D-printed valves. Maker's Asylum, a hackerspace in India, recruited volunteers with laser cutters in 42 cities to produce more than a million face shields.

You, the FBI agent, is not surprised. He recently finished a national security detail to the Department of Health and Human Services for the pandemic response and is back doing the work he loves most: hanging with hackers. He's focusing on the convergence of cyber and biohacking threats, including those coming from foreign governments to undermine health systems and upset the battle against COVID-19.

"Whether you're part of a major lab workflow in the U.S., like Opentrons, or you're working on code in your home lab, there are brand-new vulnerabilities — a lot at stake," he said. "Wouldn't it have been nice if someone like me had met with Steve Jobs back in the beginning?"

Everyone is the looking for the next breakthrough innovation. Genspace, the dynamic community founded in the Brooklyn bank building, has moved to a palatial space in Sunset Park. It is hosting in-person classes for biotech denizens with big imaginations: genome editing, kombucha papermaking, painting with microbes.

Last weekend, it offered a biohacker boot camp, pipetting and all.

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