Global experts gather at U of T to discuss how ‘self driving labs’ will revolutionize scientific discovery

September 1, 2023 by Catrina Kronfli - U of T News

The Acceleration Consortium (AC) at the University of Toronto recently brought together more than 350 representatives from academia, industry and government from 16 countries to discuss how “self-driving labs” are revolutionizing the speed and impact of scientific discovery.

Held over four days in August, the consortium’s second annual Accelerate conference focused on key themes such as talent development, collaboration and commercialization – all with an eye to finding and developing new materials and molecules that can help solve humanity’s most pressing challenges, from climate change to pandemics.

Alán Aspuru-Guzik, director of the AC and a professor in U of T’s Departments of Chemistry and Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts & Science, said the conference has quickly emerged as a major draw in a field that’s rapidly gaining momentum around the world.

“The Acceleration Consortium’s Accelerate Conference attracts the world’s leading academic and industry researchers working to accelerate scientific discovery,” he said. “Given the tremendous growth and excitement we have seen since launching the conference just one year ago, it is clear Accelerate is becoming the flagship event for accelerated discovery.”

A U of T Institutional Strategic Initiative that launched in 2021, the AC earlier this year received a $200-million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) to help it achieve its bold vision of realizing the age of materials on demand.

The largest federal research grant ever awarded to a Canadian university, the CFREF grant allows the consortium to bring together researchers and industry to design, develop and implement self-driving lab technologies. These labs combine the power of artificial intelligence (AI) with robotics and advanced computing to create new materials and molecules needed for a sustainable future – at a fraction of the usual time and cost. Applications include everything from life-saving medications to biodegradable plastics.

 Alán Aspuru-Guzik speaks at the Accelerate Conference 2023 (photo by Worker Bee Supply © Acceleration Consortium)
Alán Aspuru-Guzik speaks at the Accelerate Conference 2023. Photo: Worker Bee Supply © Acceleration Consortium.

Chandra Veer Singh, an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, and Christine Allen, a professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, noted AI will be critical to a variety of careers in the future and that continuous learning is necessary to equip workers with the knowledge and skills needed to fill these roles.

Sterling Baird, the AC’s director of training and programs, spoke about the consortium’s upcoming digital discovery program – the first of its kind in Canada. Thanks to support from the Ontario Micro-credentials Fund, the program will train scientists looking to apply AI to materials discovery. Flora Wan, a technical education specialist with the Vector Institute, shared the programs that the institute developed to help professionals and businesses develop AI knowledge.

As an emerging field, ecosystem development is also important. Anjuli Szawiola, policy analyst with Natural Resources Canada, spoke to the two networks the federal government is co-leading – Materials for Energy and the German-Canadian Materials Acceleration Centre – to promote knowledge sharing and the adoption of advanced materials for clean energy in Canada and abroad.

For its part, the AC has become a magnet for cross-sector collaboration as its partners look to gain access to the wide range of expertise, research and innovation it has assembled.

The consortium includes more than 100 academics from more than 40 research institutes and 30 private and public sector organizations. Together, they are creating a global community to tackle key challenges in the field such as data sharing and reproducibility of self-driving labs.

Michelle Murphy, a professor in the Department of History in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science and a Canada Research Chair in Science & Technology Studies and Environmental Data Justice, spoke about the importance of incorporating social scientists and Indigenous communities in the research process given the ethical implications of speeding up the pace of science.

Murphy will examine critical issues associated with self-driving labs, including ensuring that those impacted most by the technology have a say in its development in order to prevent unintended harms, whether direct or indirect. With this in mind, equity, diversity and inclusion will continue to guide the AC’s project implementation and research design.

On the topic of commercialization, Sonia Sennik, executive director of the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), shared the non-profit’s history of and philosophy towards supporting entrepreneurs.

“New founders have thousands of things on their to-do list. CDL believes the best judgment an early-stage entrepreneur can get is ‘entrepreneurial judgement’ from an experienced entrepreneur,” Sennik explained. CDL’s program allows select entrepreneurs to benefit from the entrepreneurial knowledge of fellows and associates who help guide CDL ventures.

Co-founded by Aspuru-Guzik, CDL’s Matter Stream is working with the AC to help founders seeking to discover, develop or recycle materials.

What comes next? The AC will assemble a steering committee to tackle various issues facing the sector. In addition to building six self-driving labs and a machine learning and automation lab, the consortium is hiring new scientists, chemists, AI experts, roboticists and more, with the goal of making the Greater Toronto Area and Canada a world leader in accelerated materials discovery.

With files from Erin Warner and Tabassum Siddiqui.