It is a CoLAB High Throughput Screening system by HighRes Biosolutions.

The main robot system is called CoLAB (for collaborative laboratory) and the plug-in component carts are called “CoLAB Flex” (for collaborative and flexible deployment). There is also a smartphone/tablet application that permits control of the robot called “Cellario Connect”.

This system is used for scientific research at the very start of AstraZeneca’s drug discovery process. The robot tests millions of compounds against the diseases we are addressing. The robot ultimately identifies and selects the best potential drugs as starting points for future medicine development in our research and development laboratories. It allows AstraZeneca to use more complex assays and more difficult cell types to model diseases.

Each year the combined group of robots will test around 40 million chemicals, investigating 40 to 50 diseases.

The robot is quicker, safer and modular, and allows us to run more complex tests than before. The robot can carry out the same work as a scientist, but they can run 24 hours a day, with greater consistency and safety, providing more results than a person or older robot systems. This will potentially speed up what we can deliver over a given period.

~40 million

we aim to screen 40 million potential drugs per year


up to 3 times quicker than previous equipment, doubling throughput


half the size of previous equipment, while increasing throughput

A scientist's perspective


Paul Harper Associate Principle Scientist, Discovery Sciences

Why did AstraZeneca invest in it?

We call the robot NiCoLA-B. This robot is faster, safer, modular, reconfigurable and more economic – overall it’s more suited to the delivery of our science.

Historically we moulded the assay to what the robot could do. Now, we are able to build the technology to match what the researcher wants the science to do. The equipment is highly flexible, ready to go immediately and can be used by multiple teams. It is modular, so if a piece of the robot system isn’t required in a particular assay/test, then the unused parts can be deployed to another team for another experiment. Previous equipment either didn’t allow this, or the components were of very limited use when separated.

Drug discovery is changing, using more complex disease models and more disease relevant cell assays – the modularity and flexibility allows us to align and evolve to this work.

AstraZeneca is sharing its new screening research facility with our partners Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council in the UK Centre for Lead Discovery. We are providing access to the laboratory, screening robots, compound libraries and our scientific expertise, together performing basic disease medication research for the benefit of our patients.

Who uses it?

Scientists in the Discovery Sciences team will use the robots on a daily basis to perform the basic research to identify potential drug molecules to progress into early development.

Other teams within the IMED Biotech Unit and MedImmune are investing potential applications for other deployments.

Can scientists from outside AstraZeneca use it?

AstraZeneca has an ambition to generate a porous scientific culture.The new robots will be placed within the UK Centre for Lead Discovery, Within this centre, which will be based in our new research facility in Cambridge, scientists from Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and other partners (through application via our Open Innovation Portal) will have the same access to the automation and its capabilities as AstraZeneca colleagues.

This shared laboratory will be a glass walled, open plan space, fostering “Science on display” for other organisations, individuals and the public to observe this specialised activity of scientists and automation working together. Who knows, we could become a popular location for school visits to highlight science for the potential next generation of researchers. 

We are deploying a remote interface to simplify the user interaction and control of the systems, both locally in the laboratory and externally for remote interaction.

How will it help AstraZeneca achieve scientific leadership? 

The collaborative relationship we’ve built with the vendor and the scientific recommendations we’ve made have contributed to AstraZeneca being seen as industry-leading in the area. Previously, robots had to be separated from people to avoid injury, but we are now changing this with these collaborative robots.  NiCoLA-B is one of the most advanced applications of collaborative robots of this type, definitely a first in pharmaceutical industry, as well as being configurable and mobile (plug and play to adapt the system).

What will we be able to achieve that we could we not have done without it?

In the past we’ve either made a robot for high capacity, certain experiment types, easy user access, or re-configurability, etc. This is the first time in the pharmaceutical industry that we’ve integrated truly collaborative industrial robotics in a modular format to meet all these needs.

As a result the system can be configured to our current and evolving future scientific demands. The system can operate as a whole to perform highly complex biological experiments, or be separated to perform simpler experiments. Historically, if you ran a simple experiment on a complex robot much of the equipment was left redundant, we can now ensure this inefficiency is mitigated.

In addition to developing the robot we’ve also invested heavily in the enhancement of the controlling schedule software, so it can be easily aligned to deliver the scientific experiment. In this we’ve included autonomous decision making for error recovery, and experimental progress; essentially automating some of the simpler decisions scientists would make to free their time for scientific innovation and to permit reliable out-of-hours operation.

The robot can generate and process the large amounts of data better and quicker than we are able to without it. As the time taken to perform an experiment moves from hours to days, we need these systems to prosecute the complexity and precision of assays at scale, that just isn’t feasible for scientists to schedule alone.

What impact will the robots will have on the scientists working with them?

The use of the robot frees up multiple scientists’ time, meaning people can now do more of the creative and innovate experiments that robots and machine intelligence cannot.

Robots can perform science on a scale, timeframe, complexity, precision and consistency that people can struggle with but ultimately it requires a scientist to design the experiment and activity that the robot will perform.

We’ve replicated in the software many of the simpler decisions scientists make on experimental progress and error recovery to facilitate the use of the system. These are our first steps into the decision making that underlies machine intelligence; essentially it can be programmed to detect if something goes wrong and to take a particular action, allowing it to decide and react in the moment. For example, in the event of an error, the same way a person would discard a few hundred drug tests to save the other 99,000 being investigated.