How Color and Slack are changing the genomic health game

“Slack makes communication easy so that we can get people to focus on things that really matter: patients’ lives.”

ColorHead of Research and DevelopmentJustin Lock

Imagine a world where anyone making a routine doctor’s appointment can also access affordable clinical genetic testing and risk assessments. That’s the future being created at Color, a population-scale health technology company. Color partners with organizations managing the health of large populations to deliver advanced care through clinical genetics.

Working with geneticists and engineers, Color employs a sophisticated, highly automated clinical-grade lab that can provide critical test results at scale to health organizations, their doctors and their patients. With Slack, Color is able to connect its expert human staff to its robots, and its robots to each other, to provide results to doctors and patients more quickly and efficiently.

Cutting out the middleman using Slack

Traditionally, genetics labs are “very cumbersome and quite difficult to use,” according to Justin Lock, Color’s head of research and development. “To be on the cutting edge of health care, Color’s had to build a lot of these tools from scratch,” he says.

With an initial use case for error reporting in research and development, Color’s engineers implemented Slack from day one as the “infrastructure” that would connect its human scientists to the bespoke, efficiency-driven hardware and software they created. One of the most important processes to use this infrastructure involves sequencing a batch of patient DNA. This occurs in four automated steps:

  • Purify: Robots take raw samples of blood or saliva and remove everything but high-purity genomic DNA—the substance that can identify variants that affect factors like cancer risk.
  • Label: Robots attach a “bar code” of synthetic DNA to each sample, as a sort of name tag to ensure that samples aren’t mixed up.
  • Narrow the scope: For efficiency, robots identify and extract just those parts of the patient’s genome that have a major influence on their health.
  • Sequence: Each base pair in that sample is examined to find “clinically actionable” mutations that the patient and his or her doctors should know about.

Through Slack, Color’s robots can move through each of these steps seamlessly, talking to each other and reporting their findings. Scientists no longer have to do the tedious, spreadsheet-heavy work of monitoring and connecting the robots manually.

“Now we don’t need people waiting around for robots to finish the particular project they were doing,” explains Lock. “Instead, we can get those systems to run autonomously and use Slack to send messages to users to say that a particular experiment is finished.”

With the robots keeping scientists up to date, the scientists are also now able to run multiple experiments and processes simultaneously, allowing for more samples to be sequenced in less time.

“Slack makes communication easy so that we can get people to focus on things that really matter: patients’ lives.”

ColorHead of Research and DevelopmentJustin Lock

Hau-Ling Poon, Color’s head of lab operations, says, “Before Slack, I wouldn’t know that there had been an error until I walked back to the instrument and said, ‘Oh dear, there’s been an error. I should have been back here an hour ago. Now I have to repeat all of this and wait an additional hour for the process to finish.’ Now if there’s an error, I get a message from Slack on my phone telling me that ‘Hey, something has gone wrong.’ And if I’m unable to get to it, other people in the lab who have access to the channel know that something’s up, and they can help investigate too.”

Making clinical-grade lab equipment more user-friendly with Slack

In Slack, each of Color’s robots has been given a name and personality, a fun addition that boosts employee engagement. With names like Wall-E, Megatron and R2D2, robots can ping individual scientists in a channel—and, using the Reacji Channeler integration, can also deploy emoji as they see fit. Some messages scientists might get from their charismatic robots in Slack:

  • @Sophia, Megatron has finished. Megatron doesn’t yield, he conquers.
  • @Alok, Wall-E has completed running 384 DNA extraction on batch LP1169.
  • @Valerie, R2D2 is about to start preparing PCR master mix on batch LPNVI1. Please go to the lab and get ready.

As Lock says, “Color is able to use the flexibility of Slack to build really innovative tools that allow us to run a really high-throughput, efficient lab that’s generating clinical-grade data, while also having a little bit of fun personalizing it.”

Achieving lab agility through Slack

For a company like Color to remain agile in a laboratory setting, communication between humans is crucial too. Thanks to Slack, lab results that once would have required scheduling a face-to-face meeting to analyze can now be disseminated and acted on with little to no lag time. Color’s robots share results with all the necessary parties in a single channel at the same time, allowing those parties to huddle up and come to a decision on the spot about how to move forward.

“Slack makes it really easy for us to change how we interact between robots or between people, by building very universal tools that are easy to pivot,” says Lock. “Slack makes communication easy so that we can get people to focus on things that really matter: patients’ lives.”

And because genetics is such a cutting-edge field, the platform’s customization-friendly interface allows scientists to change directions, improve workflows and design new software a lot more quickly than if they were just engaging with each individual robot manually.

“The health-care industry has always been very slow to adopt new technology,” adds Poon. “So, while what we’ve been able to do with Slack may seem simple, it actually is very revolutionary. It enables us to figure out more efficient ways of allocating personnel and instrumentation to achieve our bigger goals.”

Automating with Slack for a healthier future

Getting genetic information to as many people as possible requires fast, effective and agile automation. The job simply can’t be achieved without it.

“I’ve always worked in clinical laboratories where a sample is a tube,” Poon says, “but what we need to remember is that all these DNA samples are actually coming from people. We’re trying to give them information that could change the way that they live the rest of their lives.”

With the help of Slack, Color is able to use its technology to get to the human element of its business faster, in order to reach—that much sooner—a healthier future for all.