It was 2015, and Chiu Chau was on the ropes. He had pitched nearly 150 venture capital firms. No one would invest. Everyone doubted the startup with the open-source laboratory robot.
Two years earlier Chiu had developed his robot at SOSV’s HAX accelerator in Shenzhen, China. But the company had struggled to find product-market fit. With capital running short, Opentrons was in trouble.
Today the firm is worth $1.8 billion. Anyone can build, customize, install, and repair its OT-2 robot. And anyone can use Opentrons’ applications, which tell the robot how to perform tedious lab work once done, begrudgingly, by human beings.
Chiu, a self-proclaimed “underdog hacker,” doesn’t want credit for the startup that has transformed COVID-19 testing and life sciences research. To Chiu, the team is more important than any individual.
Chiu was born 1964 and raised in the Tai Wo Hau neighborhood in Hong Kong. The son of blue-collar parents and one of five siblings, he spent his childhood taking apart discarded gadgets he found on the street. He learned to reverse engineer these devices in his mind and sketch them by hand. He thought he might become a draftsman.
Chiu became the first person in his family to attend college and, after earning a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Hong Kong, he earned a master’s degree in physics at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Ga. in 1983.
Originally planning to earn a PhD, Chiu hesitated after getting married. “I was going to be very poor for the next seven years,” he says. And he’d soured on formal education, which he found to be “useless” in the real world. He left academia to work as an optics engineer and was recruited in 1998 by BioArray Solutions, a New Jersey startup working on genotyping. His startup education had begun.
Chiu talks about startup work almost as if it were combat. He talks about the “turmoil” at BioArray; how the startup “almost died” several times; and how regulation “kills” innovation.
In 2008 BioArray sold to a blood transfusion company. Chiu stayed on briefly, but grew disenchanted with patents, which slowed down life-saving R&D. He preferred the open-source approach, which he had discovered online.
After launching a startup in 2010—and failing—Chiu went back to exercising his childhood skills. He bought a few “crappy” 3D printers, took them apart, and reverse engineered them. For what purpose, he wasn’t sure yet.
From his days with BioArray, Chiu had two $100,000 liquid-handling robots sitting in his garage lab. To fix them would cost $20,000. Instead, he reverse-engineered them to create a cheap 3D printer that could do the same work. Chiu shared his invention with a DIY biology email listserv, hoping to land customers.
Will Canine was a master’s student at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program when he saw Chiu’s email. He wanted to use Chiu’s robot for his thesis, so he drove through a snowstorm to Chiu’s lab and became the first paying customer.
Chiu planned to sell hardware. Will challenged him to do better. Why not sell the robots, but open source the software users needed to automate lab work? Chiu could create the equivalent of the Thingiverse, a 3D printing library, but for lab automation. Will went from customer to co-founder.
Only large corporations and universities could afford one of the $100,000 machines falling apart in Chiu’s garage. If they could lower the price to a few thousand dollars, almost anyone could afford to automate their lab. First, though, Opentrons needed a more polished product.
Chiu, Will, and a third co-founder, software engineer Nick Wagner, applied to HAX. To Chiu’s surprise, they were accepted.
“A startup needs two things,” says Chiu. “One is speed. The other is momentum. If you don’t have both, you don’t have a startup.” Speed was Chiu’s priority at HAX. The team basically slept at the HAX lab and cranked out 10 prototypes in three months.
HAX founder Cyril Ebersweiler and partner Ben Joffe urged Chiu to do something unconventional: Pre-sell their biotech robot on Kickstarter.
HAX taught the Opentrons crew about supply chains in China, where connections are everything. During the program, Chiu built relationships with suppliers, not knowing how important this would become in 2020.
Opentrons needed momentum. HAX founder Cyril Ebersweiler and partner Ben Joffe urged Chiu to do something unconventional: Pre-sell their biotech robot on Kickstarter. While Opentrons sold only $125,000 worth of product, it gained momentum (and long-lasting SEO).
After HAX, Opentrons entered the hardware “valley of death,” a place where Chiu seems comfortable. “If you raise too much, you become lazy,” he says. “If you raise too little money, you become extremely hungry.”
Chiu preferred being hungry. He warned visitors to expect “total chaos” if they visited Opentrons’ New York office or Shenzhen warehouse. There was no time or cash for cleanup.
Chiu admits that he wasn’t a great team builder or storyteller. “The reason I build robots is because I’m not very good at humans,” he says.
Opentrons had trouble generating sales needed for liftoff. Had they not been accepted into Y Combinator in 2016 and found investors at demo day, the company would have folded.
By 2018 Opentrons was ramping up sales, and Chiu was slowing down because of health concerns. He made himself chief technology officer and hired Jonathan Brennan-Badal, a New York tech executive who had helped lead comic app ComiXology to its acquisition by Amazon, as Opentrons’ new chief executive officer.
If you’ve heard about Opentrons’ breakout performance during COVID-19, Chiu insists Jonathan and Will deserve all the credit. The world needed lab automation to perform PCR tests. Opentrons provided robots at the cost and scale required. The company had solid relationships with the suppliers Chiu had met in Shenzhen during HAX.
Because Opentrons is open source, the company didn’t need to send out implementation teams with the OT-2s (and couldn’t have, given travel restrictions). Engineers around the world learned from the Opentrons website, performed the installation, and taught lab teams how to automate PCR tests. During the first six months of the pandemic, Opentrons shipped more than 1,000 OT-2s to hospitals and diagnostic labs.
“If you raise too much, you become lazy,” Chiu says. “If you raise too little money, you become extremely hungry.”
Opentrons partnered with New York City to launch the Pandemic Response Laboratory. The Opentrons subsidiary could turn around PCR tests in less than 24 hours at a fraction of the typical cost. The New York PRL can process 40,000 to 60,000 COVID-19 tests per day using OT-2s. Opentrons has since opened PRLs in Irvine, Ca., and Rockville, Md.
With a $200 million Series C that closed in September 2021, Opentrons is pushing further into diagnostics, biology R&D, and cell engineering.
Chiu amicably parted ways with Opentrons in 2021, ready to learn something new. Although he was CEO and older than his co-founders by 25 years, he says he never expected them to follow blindly. “If as co-founders you always agree, some of you are useless.”
By Richard Ellis
Photos by Marco Giannavola