The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Juniors’ Genebot Startup Wins $2,500 Prize

Connor LaBean and Ben StephensConnor LaBean ’14, right, and Ben Stephens ’14, left. 

Last year, Connor LaBean ’14 excitedly approached his good friend, Ben Stephens ‘14, about an idea he had: a biotech automation robot or “genebot” that could do about anything involving liquid transfer, thus saving eons on time-consuming experiments involving genetic replication that are usually done manually. Stephens, a Classics major, immediately jumped aboard the idea. Last weekend their idea won the $2,500 prize at Reed Start Up Lab.

The prize money has now made it possible for LaBean to start constructing a prototype. After they finish the prototype, the two hope to enter into the “do-it-yourself” market, where there products would be available online. They are considering making a robot that one could buy and put together themselves and that could, for instance, check proteins in testing for genetic dispositions.

The prototype that LaBean is working on is similar to a device available commercially on a larger scale. However, the commercial device costs upwards of $10,000 and is available only to large corporations working in profitable markets like pharmaceutical production.

LaBean says small research facilities could make use of a cheaper version of such a device, which would allow them to do more experiments as well as save money. Labs would not have to pay for the manual labor generally required in gene replication, and grad students could better use this free time for working on design experiments.

LaBean started thinking about this idea a year ago during a two-week biology experiment with mutation. His first thought was, “I want one of those [robots] for myself.” On top of menial pipetting labor, the robot would help in finding the functional part of a protein and in synthesizing useful proteins. Three months ago LaBean’s brother, who is currently studying to be an engineer at Georgia Tech, started contributing to the project.

Stephens referred to their win at the Start Up Lab as a “good starting point.” Right now they are looking for people with expertise in electronics or who are interested in biology and have ideas for experiments involving PCR (polymerase chain reaction).

“There’s Reedies out there doing really cool stuff,” said LaBean about the Start Up Lab, which hosted investors and entrepreneurs to advise Reedies with ideas for startups. The experience was a practice for future business ventures and helped them polish their ideas. During the process they also made connections with venture capitalists. They both said that it “would have been awesome if more people showed up.” The other two teams had “really great, well thought out ideas” and the two admitted to having been worried.

Since the pitch, Stephens will be getting involved with one of the other startups, “Maaha edu,” which was pitched by Chuks Emmanuel Ememchukwu ’16. The project would bring high school classes via mobile phone to students in Anglophone West Africa. Stephens said, “If you have an idea, you can make it happen.”

As a closing note Stephens said, “I’m really excited, and we want to get other people excited,” but there’s a lot of work to be done between now and the completion of the prototype. “It’s a daunting task and it’s going to take a long time, but we can do it.”

 

LaBean and Stephens are working to set up a website for Genebot, but interested parties can email Stephens at bstephen@reed.edu.

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