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Covid-19 testing innovation from RCA alumna

Helene Steiner (MA Innovation Design Engineering, 2015) and a team of researchers from OpenCell and Kings College London have developed a low-cost Covid-19 testing laboratory capable of performing 2,400 tests a day.

This is the first example of a fully functional lab that can be immediately deployed anywhere in the world for Covid-19 testing. The team have been awarded an Innovate UK grant for business-led innovation to continue the development of the project.

portrait of Helene Steiner
Helene Steiner

Helene is the director and co-founder of OpenCell, which provides affordable lab space to early stage startups working at the intersection of design and biology. Since graduating from the RCA she has worked on various projects at the intersection of science, design and technology with organisations including Microsoft Research in Seattle and Cambridge, and the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. These projects have included Project Florence a plant to human interface, Biologic, a self-transforming biological skin activated by living bacteria and “Autonomous Pixel” display. Helene’s work has been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and she was made a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow in 2018.

We spoke with her about the development of the testing lab and the ways in which studying at the RCA prepared her for founded OpenCell.

Could you give an overview of OpenCell's Covid-19 testing project?

We were carefully following what was happening in China and worried that the crisis might be underestimated. Shortly after the virus genome had appeared on GenBank we organised a biohackathon, which helped us to improve our understanding of the situation. That’s when we realised testing would be key to contain spreading and to allow people to come back to work safely until a valid vaccine is developed. This inspired us to create CONTAIN, with the goal of enabling a rapid scale-up of testing capacity that would be accessible and affordable to everyone. CONTAIN is a mobile Covid-19 testing laboratory in a shipping container, capable of delivering 2,400 tests in 24 hours using lab automation. They can be shipped globally and placed in any location needed.

rendering of container testing lab on truck
Container on truckfront, OpenCell

What have you achieved so far and what’s next?

In just a few weeks, we developed a functional lab at OpenCell, which is optimised for Covid-19 testing. We developed and validated our testing method using lab automation (liquid handling robots) and an RNA extraction process using magnetic beads. This quick turnaround time was only possible through a unique collaboration that bridged scientific research, industry and the community. We had help from hundreds of volunteers across the globe and collaborated with OpenTrons Labware, King’s College London and The Stem Cell Hotel to make this happen.

Since then we have made the project open-source via an alive document which is both a report of our ongoing work and a how-to guide for adapting and replicating our project. We have also released our preprint publication on bioRxiv showcasing our results. The next big step is to receive regulatory approval which we will progress with the help of the Innovate UK funding.

Diagram of container testing lab
CONTAIN overview, OpenCell
What initially motivated you to set up OpenCell?

fabric opening to show skin
Biotechnology is changing. More and more non-traditional disciplines are joining the party. We wanted to lower the entry barrier to biotechnology and did this by providing affordable and custom laboratories for early-stage biotech businesses with great ideas.

What unites OpenCell’s residents is the need for a lab to test their ideas in reality. Projects reach from personal therapeutics to new sustainable materials produced by bacteria to new types of food. As the name suggests, OpenCell is big on open-source. Being able to build on each other’s work and being part of critical mass will ultimately speed up innovation in biotechnology.

How do you use the skills you acquired studying IDE at the RCA at OpenCell?

One skillset you walk away with is being prepared for almost anything, no matter how challenging or stressful. This is a very useful skill if you decide to run a start-up. IDE truly prepared me for this wild journey. Most importantly IDE taught me how to work in collaboration and with a team with a very diverse set of backgrounds and personalities.

Person looking at a plant in a glass dome
Project Florence

Could you explain the work you’ve been doing with the Fashion programme at the RCA?

woman wearing a dress with holes in it
Piero D'Angelo
Over the last three years, my colleague Dr Thomas Meany and I have worked together with Zowie Broach, Head of Fashion, on the Biomaterial Platform. The focus of the platform is to provide fashion students with the technical skills needed to integrate biotechnology into their work. The course covers not only microbiology but also programming and hardware, and is highly interdisciplinary and collaborative. Each year we work with a diverse set of scientific collaborators to place the newest advances in biotechnology into the hands of Fashion students.

Biotechnology is a very fast-evolving field and it is incredible to see how quickly the students evolve with it. Every year we see exceptional work coming from the students including: Smart fibres which can "puff up" to keep you warm by Nicci James; Mycelium leather grown on-roll using abandoned materials by Aurelie Fontan; and Slime mould dyes for a more sustainable way to dye textiles by LVHM nominee Piero D'Angelo.

knitted grey sweater and yarn
Nicci James

Find our more about MA Innovation Design Engineering and MA Fashion, as well as the other programmes in the School of Design at the RCA.