SOLIDWORKS Entrepreneur: FlySorter LLC Develops Innovative Technology to Advance Drosophila Lab Automation

Fruit flies are one of the keys for biologists to unlock the secrets behind human genetics, as well as understanding disease, behavior, neuroscience and more. For more than 100 years, scientists have used Drosophila as a model organism to learn about genes, disease, behavior, neuroscience, and more. But in the course of their work, there is a great deal of tedious, manual labor required to classify and sort each fly by physical characteristics such as sex and eye color. FlySorter LLC provides innovative technology to support Drosophila labs around the world. With modular hardware and software, FlySorter improves throughput and helps scientists obtain better experimental results.

Founder and mechanical engineer Dave Zucker started FlySorter LLC in 2014, and began designing an automated fly sorting system. “We started the company in the Boston area and soon moved into space at Industry Lab, a coworking space in Cambridge. That’s where we developed a relationship with SOLIDWORKS and the SOLIDWORKS Entrepreneur Program.”

FlySorter uses rapid prototyping techniques like 3D printing and laser cutting to quickly iterate designs and fabricate parts for its machines. “We were able to learn what worked by building and testing on a really short cycle. From CAD to part in a matter of hours, we could get feedback on our design and make multiple versions every day.” When I spoke with Dave about his work, he said “Starting the company has been challenging, but also enjoyable. The team gets to learn new things every day, and seeing the results of our design work manifest so quickly is very satisfying.”

Sorting flies is something that happens nearly every day in a Drosophila lab, and it’s not very exciting work most of the time. FlySorter has broken down the task of sorting flies into three steps, each performed by a different device:

  1. Isolating one fly at a time from a vial containing hundreds
  2. Capturing high resolution images of each fly
  3. Using computer vision and machine learning to classify the images then send the fly to one of two vials based on the decision.

The Fly Dispenser uses soft foam rollers and a puff of air to dispense a wake (non-anesthetized) adult fruit flies, one at a time, once every few seconds. Flies can be loaded into 96 well microplates for analysis, experimental chambers, or sent to the next module of the sorting system. “I think I made at least 150 different versions of the mechanism in the dispenser before getting it just right. That wouldn’t have been possible without software from SOLIDWORKS,” said Dave.

Recently, FlySorter LLC received an SBIR grant from NIH, giving the team an extra boost to finish work on the automated sorting system. To get the grant, they had to demonstrate the fundamentals of the system were sound, and also provide images of the proposed design. Dave told me “No question that being a part of the [SOLIDWORKS Entrepreneurship] program enabled us to get this grant.”

Innovation continues beyond the sorting, dispensing and counting of flies.  The FlyPlate System allows biologists to culture, store, and retrieve flies in specially-designed 96 well plates with a stainless steel mesh permanently bonded to form the bottom of the wells.

The team is preparing to exhibit their latest technology at the annual fruit fly convention Drosophila Research Convention that will take place in March of 2018.

Thank you to Dave Zucker and FlySorter LLC for being SOLIDWORKS Entrepreneurs and sharing with our community.

Isabelle Smith

Education and Early Engagement Intern at SOLIDWORKS at Dassault Systems SOLIDWORKS
Isabelle Smith is the Education and Early Engagement Intern for SOLIDWORKS. Focused on helping Startups and Entrepreneurs reach their highest potential, Isabelle strives to continually increase her knowledge on the Startup world. She has worked with Entrepreneurs at numerous startup events, competitions, workshops and accelerators. Isabelle looks forward to continuing her career with startups world wide.