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Corporate Profiles : Mar 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 5)

Agilent Expands Its Capabilities in Robotics

Acquisition of Velocity11 Broadens Firm's Liquid-Handling Abilities
  • Carol Potera

In December 2007, Agilent Technologies acquired Velocity11, a supplier of automated liquid-handling and laboratory robotic instruments for the life science market. “Our goal in the life sciences is to put together workflows that solve customer problems,” says Nick Roelofs, vp of Agilent’s Life Science Systems and Solutions Unit. “Together, we can offer customers a comprehensive set of workflow solutions with increased levels of automation.”

As a solutions provider, Agilent attempts to understand a customer’s process from sample preparation to data acquisition. For example, it considers ways to connect a serum sample with a data endpoint, or a sample of dirt with a contaminant, or a food product with a pesticide.

“How a customer handles a sample all the way across that horizon is a workflow,” explains Roelofs. Agilent strives to find applications for its products in some or all of the workflow steps, and automation plays a major role. “If we can automate the front end of sample preparation, then we can accelerate the workflow,” Roelofs says.

Velocity11 brings attributes that play into two key aspects of automation—throughput and precision, he adds. Researchers working in high-throughput environments want highly precise, rapid, and repetitive elements that can be automated to generate high-quality data.

Agilent also sees an opportunity to use the expertise of Velocity11 in situations that require precision, but not high-throughput automation, such as improving human error without necessarily accelerating the number of samples analyzed. “That’s an area where we plan to use the modular instrument assembly strength of Velocity11,” mentions Roelofs.

One application of precision without automation can be found in the manufacturing of the drug heparin, an anticoagulant. China supplies more than half the world’s supply of heparin, extracted from pig intestines at small, family-run workshops.

Contaminated batches periodically cause deaths or allergic reactions in some patients who are given heparin to prevent blood clots during surgery or kidney dialysis. Safer automated techniques are needed to test the supply of raw materials at the source of origin. Giving mom-and-pop workshops a liquid chromatography  machine is not the answer, since they are not trained in sophisticated sample preparation. An alternative could be an automated instrument that makes the necessary serial dilutions and performs other steps. “That’s an example of a precision opportunity that is not a traditional automation type,” adds Roelofs.

Product Portfolio Expands

Last August, the Velocity11 group  moved from Menlo Park, CA, to a larger customized space at the Santa Clara campus of Agilent. Now known as Agilent Automation Solutions, it continues to design and sell instruments; at the end of January, Velocity11 products were rebranded as Agilent. In the future, product names will migrate toward the Agilent brand or be referred to as the Velocity11 product group. Agilent has made no significant changes in the division’s product portfolio. “They were leading edge, and we have no reason to change that,” comments Roelofs.

Products in the R&D pipeline are now being accelerated with an infusion of Agilent engineering and funds. Agilent is also deploying the talents of Velocity11 researchers into new areas such as food testing to detect chemical contaminants like melamine and pesticides as well as foodborne pathogens. The recently acquired Stratagene, and the molecular biology skills of that company combined with the expertise of Velocity11 should lead to innovative detection methods, explains Roelofs.

Velocity11 has also set up a high-throughput automated stem cell and screening platform at I-STEM in Evry, France. I-STEM uses stem cells for drug discovery. According to Roelofs, this is the first time that stem cell cultures and screening have been automated in 96-well microplates.

Traditionally, such an endeavor would require a custom-built robotic system costing several million dollars. Velocity11, however, assembled modular components that lowered the price to $1 million. More importantly, “the modular aspect can be easily replicated, and we have other customers looking at the system,” explains Roelofs.

Velocity11 built its reputation on creating instruments that can stand alone or be assembled into modular systems. “The combination of product innovation and system integration is the unique genius of Velocity11 that Agilent noticed,” says Rob Nail,  GM of Agilent Automation Solutions.

Among Agilent Automation Solution’s current products are the Bravo™ Liquid Handling Platform. The Bravo fits inside a standard laminar flow hood, allowing automated liquid handling of cell-based assays or hazardous reagents. The accurate pipette heads of the VPrep™ pipettor are used to dispense 100 nanoliters to 200 microliters into 96-, 384-, or 1,536-well plates. The Bravo integrates with other devices, saves on costly reagents, and can be used for assay plate preparation, microplate replication, library reformatting, DNA extraction, and cell-assay screening, notes Roelofs.

Another popular product, the VSpin™ Microplate Centrifuge, is a small robotic-accessible automated centrifuge. It’s ideal for high- or medium-throughput applications and for filtration protocols, air-bubble removal in microplates, and spinning down cells or cellular debris in microplate wells, Roelofs says. A variety of robotic arms can access the buckets for high-throughput screening, and the units can be stacked to save space.