Meet NiCoLA-B – the most advanced drug discovery robot in the world

Quietly and efficiently, NiCoLA-B swings into action, ready to test up to 300,000 compounds a day in the quest to identify life saving new medicines.


The world’s most advanced drug discovery robot is working alongside our scientists to help make drug discovery smarter, faster and cheaper. Designed to work three times more quickly than previous drug discovery robots, NiCoLA-B is also more scientist-friendly, flexible and responsive.

 Paul Harper

Paul Harper Associate Principal Scientist – Screening Sciences at the Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit

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We can configure NiCoLA-B to do our experiments in whatever way we want and we can interact with it while it’s working. It can sense our presence in a way that previous robots couldn’t, so it can share our workspace instead of being encased behind safety guarding.

A friendlier robot

Harper and his colleagues drew on decades of experience working with first generation robots to draw up their blueprint for NiCoLA-B. They wanted to swap the so-called ‘dumb robots’ originally designed for heavy lifting on production lines for a bespoke robotic system suited to the delicate manoeuvres and human interactions needed in drug discovery.

“We used to have to adjust our experiments to the way the robots worked, but NiCoLA-B has been designed to adapt to our way of working and collaborate with us. At any time, we can quickly inspect, interact and easily reconfigure it to our changing needs, so we’re in charge now!” Harper explains.

Through a mobile app, the team is able to ‘talk’ to NiCoLA-B and guide its decision-making – day or night, from their offices, homes, or even from the other side of the world.

NiCoLA-B – on duty 24/7

NiCoLA-B uses sound waves to move tiny droplets of potential drugs from storage tubes into miniature ‘wells’ on assay plates – billionths of a litre at a time. Next, droplets of cells or biochemical solutions are added to the wells. NiCoLA-B then oversees the interactions between the contents of the wells, checking for potential activity that could indicate a promising new drug.

The experiments can last from an hour to many days, and NiCoLA-B must ‘remember’ to add reagents, change assay conditions and handle hundreds of plates, scheduling all of the stages of the experiment accurately and consistently.

Paul Harper Associate Principal Scientist – Screening Sciences at the Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit

Sharing NiCoLA-B with research partners

We are making NiCoLA-B available to our research partners through Open Innovation – our pioneering initiative for sharing our compounds, technology and expertise with academic and industry collaborators. The first research partners to work with NiCoLA-B are Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council. By combining our expertise, we are accelerating medicines research for the treatment of a range of diseases where there is a substantial unmet need.  

It's really exciting that AstraZeneca are opening their doors and allowing academic scientists into their labs.

Georgia Cerillo Medical Research Council Supported Scientist

It will have a really positive impact on our work. Something which would previously have taken a year to do will take a few months.

Fabrice Turlais Cancer Research UK Drug Discovery Scientist

Page ATLAS ID: 1022883.011
Date of Preparation: November 2016
Date of Expiry: November 2017