Biomaker Challenges and other opportunities

The Biomaker Challenge programme creates interdisciplinary team-based opportunities to explore the intersection of electronics, 3D printing, sensor technology, low cost DIY instrumentation and biology. Each Biomaker Challenge aims to promote collaboration between disciplines, tapping into commodity electronics and open technologies for instrumentation to build research skills and collaborations.

Cambridge-Norwich Biomaker Challenge 2019


The OpenPlant Biomaker Challenge is a six-month programme challenging interdisciplinary teams based at the University of Cambridge and Norwich Research Park (and their widely flung partners) to build low-cost sensors and instruments for biology. From colorimeters to microfluidics and beyond, we’re looking for frugal, open source and DIY approaches to biological experiments.

Whether you’re a biologist looking to optimise your protocols and pick up some electronics knowledge; an engineer looking to apply your skills and gain experience of practical biology or you’re just curious and interested to participate, we’re keen to hear from you. Participants will receive a Biomaker Toolkit and a discretionary budget for additional sensors, components, consumables and 3D-printing. All teams will document their progress at and exhibit their device at the OpenPlant Forum in Cambridge at the end of July 2019 - where there will be the possibility of additional follow-on funding to extend the project. The Challenge will finish with and exhibition and prize-giving at the Open Technology Workshop and Biomaker Fayre on Wednesday 6 November 2019.

We recruit teams for the OpenPlant Biomaker Challenge, running information sessions and mixer events in Cambridge and Norwich. The schedule of events and other details can be found at Up to 50 teams are funded over the summer, and we are extending the competition internationally.

Cambridge Smart Imaging Sandpit 2019

The last few years have seen rapid growth in the application of AI approaches, especially Deep Learning, for the monitoring and control of complex real-world systems. These have been mainly applied to areas of heavy investment, like autonomous vehicle guidance, financial investment, agriculture and industry. However, we are now seeing the emergence of low-cost, high performance computing platforms with specialised coprocessors designed for machine learning. For example, Google and Nvidia have released low-cost Edge development board with specialised coprocessors capable of running Deep Learning models in real time. These new technologies are beginning to have major impacts in developed countries, and plummeting costs offer the prospect of implementing Deep Learning systems to help solve wider problems, putting these state-of-the-art tools for monitoring and decision-making into the hands of farmers, workers, inspectors and medical professionals in low resource environments, with beneficial impact on management of crop growth, disease in plants, animals and humans, environmental impacts, climatic events, maintenance of infrastructure, education and personal health. The Synthetic Biology SRI, Global Challenges IRC and Sensor SRN will convene a “sandpit” to discuss the new technology, real-world applications and design challenges. The sandpit will lead to project pitches and funding of prototypes. Due late summer 2019.


Oz Biomaker Challenge 2019

This year will see the first teams participate from Australia, led by Prof. Anton van den Hengel and colleagues at the University of Adelaide. Watch here for further information about this and possible additional teams.

Africa Biomaker Challenge 2019


The UK-based Global Challenge Research Fund is funding pump-priming that will allow us to implement the Biomaker programme with key partners located in African institutions, and build local expertise and capacity through knowledge sharing and exchange of open-source tools and materials. We are establishing and enhancing sustainable partnerships with researchers at the University of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia; Mansour University, Egypt; University of Pretoria, South Africa and Kumasi Hive, Ghana. The proposal aims to create new people-based capacity and capability to undertake ODA-eligible research across career stages in the UK and developing countries, and enable new research to address challenges faced by developing countries. We hope that shared Biomaker projects will increase the engagement of the UK research community with international development challenges, particularly by enhancing expertise and focusing this expertise on the challenges faced by developing countries through shared project development.

A common platform: the Biomaker Starter Kit

easy-to-use hardware, graphical programming and touchscreen user interface


Arduino-based hardware
We have chosen Arduino-based hardware ( as our starting point. The Arduino community has established open standards and rich ecosystem of resources for simple microcontrollers, first established to simplify programming and physical computing for designers and artists. Arduino circuit boards can be plugged into the USB port of any laptop, and a simple cross-platform programming environment used to program the board. A program is simply loaded to non-volatile memory on the Arduino board, which will execute this program loop whenever the board is powered on - behaving as a dedicated appliance or instrument. Arduino boards include many input/output ports, and are intended to interface with sensors and actuators. The Arduino system provides a simple environment for learning programming and hardware skills, and developing real-world laboratory tools for biologists. Further, Biomarker Challenges provides a direct route for other scientists and engineers to get hands-on experience with biological systems.

Graphical programming
We have adopted XOD as a simple platform for programming Arduino-based hardware. XOD is an open source platform that allows the graphical layout and assembly of software through connection of a series of nodes. XOD allows a hierarchical and dataflow driven approach, avoids the complexities of text management and syntax, and can be used to directly programme Arduino boards. The software can be downloaded from: (

User interface
The Biomaker Starter Kit contains a 4D Systems 3.2" gen4 touch-responsive programmable display from 4D Systems (with memory card, Arduino interface and programmer), with information about programming environments. An Arduino library for direct serial communication with the display is available - along with more sophisticated Workshop4 development tools, including ViSi-Genie, a graphical programming tool that allows simple access to a wide range of display widgets like gauges, switches, sliders, readouts, etc., for creating customised interfaces for Arduino-based instruments. The programmable displays can be easily adapted for Raspberry Pi board computers.

More details of the unique features of the above elements can be found in this section of the website.

Expansion kits
We are designing hardware expansion packs that are design to support biologically orientated engineering projects:

  • Laboratory-based measurements involving tubes/cuvettes/paper assays and optical techniques for colour/fluorescence/luminescence detection, temperature control with LEDs, plastic fibre optics, etc.

  • Environmental measurements using solar panels and sensors for parameters such as temperature, humidity, soil moisture, chemistry, atmospheric pressure and actuators for pumps, motors, etc.

  • Future plans include addition of a kit for macroscopy-microscopy and machine learning.

  • Totemmaker struts, sheets and fasteners, and 3D printing resources for developemnt of custom chassis.