Olden Labs emerges from stealth to automate animal longevity studies

Startup introduces AI-powered smart cages that deliver low-cost, data-rich longevity studies with improved animal welfare.

Targeting one of the key bottlenecks in aging research, Olden Labs emerged from stealth today on a mission to build the world’s first automated animal research lab. The company’s first product is an AI-powered “smart cage” that continuously monitors the health of multiple experimental animals, analyzing multiple health parameters to provide high-quality, reproducible data, at a significantly lower cost than manual studies.

Olden’s smart cages are designed to be retrofitted into existing cages, and use a combination of near-infrared cameras, microphones, and AI, to individually monitor multiple animals living in a single cage. All for less than a thousand bucks. 

Longevity.Technology: Animal studies are a vital component in the early research and development of new therapeutics. More than $36 billion is spent annually on animal testing, but 90% of new drugs still fail in human clinical trials, and many of the methods still being used today were developed in the 1960s. Fields like genomics and imaging now generate terabytes of digital data that can be leveraged by researchers, while observations in animal studies are still conducted manually. The ubiquitous mouse lifespan study, for example, is a labor-intensive process that can be stressful for the animals involved.

San Francisco-based Olden Labs claims that the data produced by these studies is limited, hard to reproduce, and costly, at more than $500,000 for a single study. With its technology-driven approach, the startup hopes to improve the success rate of animal research, while simultaneously reducing the cost of clinical translation. To learn more, we caught up with co-founder and CEO, Dr Michael Florea.

Florea, a Harvard-trained biologist, knows his apples when it comes to animal studies. During his PhD he conducted several longevity and healthspan studies in mice – an experience he says he’ll never forget.

Michael Florea is co-founder and CEO of Olden Labs.

“I would work with about 300 or 400 animals, and I would have to measure them for their health. To get the basic dataset, I had to spend eight months in the ‘mouse house’, doing nothing but manually measuring the mice all day, every day. I realized it was a fundamental limitation that was holding the field back.”

Bringing animal studies up to date

Along with his co-founders, Forbes 30 Under 30 AI developer Noah Weber, and former 10X Genomics and Apple engineers Pratomo Alimsijah and Michael Kaca, Florea believed there had to be a better way to run animal studies.

“Think about it – you’ve got organizations like Altos Labs with $3 billion, doing epigenetic reprogramming with massive omics and the most cutting-edge technologies available – and to find out what their therapies actually do, they have to go and measure one animal at a time, by hand,” he says. “The technology gap between animal studies and the rest of biology is extreme.”

Florea and Olden Labs co-founder Pratomo Alimsijah designing smart cages.

Florea says the argument comes down to simple economics.

“If studies are expensive and laborious, not many are done. As a result, the field doesn’t progress and doesn’t replicate. I realized there needed to be a company that solved this in an accessible way, to make animal studies for longevity better and help the field progress.”

The basic principle that the Olden team arrived at was to use AI to remove as many manual steps from the process as possible.

“We decided, let’s not use humans to measure the animals, let’s do everything we can in the cage – automate as much as possible – so that we can improve the three major issues: cost, reproducibility and animal welfare,” says Florea.

The cost factor is a no-brainer – at $500,000 a study, there is clearly a lot of room for improvement. The issue with reproducibility stems from the highly subjective nature of manual studies.

“Often, if you change the person between mouse experiments, the biggest effect size is going to be other person, not the intervention,” says Florea, who adds that the animal welfare issues also result directly from the manual nature of studies. “You need to remove the animals from their home cage and handle them to do the tests. For certain tests, this causes them substantial stress – you’re potentially impacting their health just by measuring them.”

More health data than ever before

With its smart cage technology, Olden Labs has taken things a step further, addressing those key issues of cost, reproducibility, and animal welfare, but also adding a huge amount of new data into the equation. The AI measures more than 15 different biomarkers – things like distance traveled, movement speed, sleep time and food intake, to build up an overall picture of health of each individual mouse.

Olden’s smart cages use AI to monitor the health of up to five animals simultaneously.

“Using all these metrics, we can combine them to provide a single measure of health – a digital measure of biological age,” says Florea. “If the biological age goes down during the study, then the intervention is overall beneficial, and vice-versa. Although we still provide all the data, of course, so you can drill down and see what specific aspects of health are changing.”

“So, this is our new paradigm for a longevity study: you take your animals, give them the treatment, and then simply put them in the smart cage. The cage does all the measurements and gives you the numbers. Same cage, same data for everyone.”

While other automation solutions are out there, Florea says that nothing comes close to Olden in terms of the volume of data being captured or the cost of the solution.

“The fundamental difficulty comes down to the fact that animals are social and need to be kept together,” he explains. “However, this makes it very difficult to measure them accurately. As a result, other solutions only track one animal at a time, give less data, and cost tens of thousands per cage. Because we have solved the crucial multi-animal tracking issue, we can get 5x more data from one cage, and can measure them over long time periods.”

A cloud-based future?

With the smart cages already in the hands of beta testers, Olden expects to start shipping its first batch of products this month.

“The hardware is ready, and the software is ready,” says Florea. “Of course, the software is going to be continually evolving, as we gather more data, go deeper and pull out more metrics. But we already have all these metrics that are working really well, simply based on what we can measure from the camera.”

Crucially, Olden’s AI can differentiate between animals.

The smart cages contain cameras, which allow researchers to log in remotely and observe their animals in real time. This also feeds into Olden Labs’ longer-term vision for automating animal studies, which includes robotics and automatic drug-administration technologies.

“While our smart cage hardware is designed for people with existing animal labs, we actually see the future of our technology supporting people who don’t have a lab at all,” says Florea. “What we’re really aiming for is to make this accessible as a cloud service, by combining our automated data collection systems with automation of animal care. So that to do a study, you simply need to go online, write up the study protocol and get data back in real time.”

Olden Labs is backed by CHMBR Partners, Healthspan Capital and Infinita Fund, as well as a grant from the Mercatus Center’s Emergent Ventures fund.

“Labs in the United States use 111 million rodents per year,” says Charles Hirschler from CHMBR Partners. “Their upkeep costs $16+ billion. I have experienced the challenges Olden Labs addresses firsthand as well as the opportunities that innovations in AI, robotics, and data acquisition offer. Between the large and intense unmet need for animal lab methods and the tailwind of rapidly advancing automation, AI, and robotics, Olden Labs offers a great opportunity.”