Tech Workshop

How Bento Bio turned its home laboratory prototype into a real product

Between closing a Kickstarter campaign and building its commercial product, home DNA lab Bento Bio discovered its manufacturing costs had risen by 400%. 

18 Apr 2017

Bento Bio doesn’t want to be a product manufacturer. It wants to do for genetics what Raspberry Pi has done for computing.

The big (and rather audacious) idea is to remove some of the mystery around the science lab and encourage more people to experiment with molecular biology. Yet first it has to get its product – a mini biology lab – out there, and produce it at scale. A feat which has proved far trickier than the founders had expected.

Designed for everyone

Tests of the first 200 hand-built Bento Labs, laptop-size kits that allow anyone to extract, copy and visualise DNA anywhere, went well. ‘The prototypes were built specifically to look as finished and product-like as possible,’ says co-founder Philipp Boeing.

The contents of the kit could easily scare off an amateur: centrifuges, thermocyclers, electrophoresis units and transilluminators. The company tried to counter the lab’s intimidating nature by making the design accessible and playful. ‘We wanted to sell people on the idea that this could be for everyone.’

Professional scientists, school teachers and biology enthusiasts were among the product’s early backers, helping the startup easily raise £150,000 on Kickstarter in April 2016 (£110,000 more than its target) and get 350 preorders of its £1,000 kits.

Production at scale

The difficult part came in turning those handmade prototypes into mass-produced kits.

Overreaching its target on Kickstarter enabled Bento Bio to switch from machining to injection moulding some of its components, a cost-efficient but also timely process. In part, this meant both Bento Bio and the industrial design company it worked with underestimated the time needed to finalise production.

Having such a polished prototype lulled both sides into a false sense of security: ‘It was part working prototype, part design fiction,’ reflects Boeing, a software engineer by training.

Loss maker

The company was several months behind schedule when the production drawings were finished. Bento Bio then received a nasty shock: the cost of manufacturing was four times higher than they had expected as a result of the weak pound and the precise materials and mechanisms the team had chosen. The new costs meant the product would lose money.

‘We had to do some crisis management,’ says Boeing. ‘We went through every single component – there are more than 200 pieces – and thought, is this good value for money? Can we re-engineer it with a similar performance?’

One of the most significant changes was the redesign of the complicated hinge-locking mechanism. It saved 20% in unit costs, and within three weeks the kits were back in budget.

Knock-on effect

As production dates have slipped back, Boeing and co-founder Bethan Wolfenden have been regularly updating their Kickstarter backers on the setbacks.

But it’s not just their customers that have been left hanging by the hold-ups.

‘It’s detracting from where we want to spend our time – on first use cases, creating learning materials, building partnerships, getting feedback,’ rues Boeing, who hopes to make Bento Bio as open source and accessible as possible over the next few years.

This story is taken from Courier Apr/May 2017.