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A man in a lab coat and safety glasses adds a plate of antibody samples to a robot in a lab. A group of three scientists stand in a line, looking at the machine.

When Curtis Walton was young, he’d disassemble household items, diligently learning about their inner mechanisms as he reassembled them.

Growing up in Sarnia, Ontario, he pulled off this exercise on the family computer, but failed on a prized clock — leaving parts and pieces askew, much to his father’s dismay. In high school, he channeled this astute curiosity into the robotics team, where he engineered bots that could complete small tasks, like throwing basketballs or stacking pyramids.

His team, #1084, never made it to the finals of the FIRST Robotics Competition, but his early explorations taught him the basics of mechanization and design — skills he now adeptly applies as the director of automation at the Institute for Protein Innovation (IPI).

“At IPI, we’re looking across the board,” Walton says, “coming up with a plan to improve productivity and discover more antibodies for the research community.”

The effort is key to the Institute’s maturation from a start-up-like nonprofit to a go-to organization making protein tools and knowledge easily available and accessible to the biomedical research community.

The mechanics of life

Walton’s part in that mission has roots in his early robotics competitions. But at the University of Ottawa, he faced a choice: pursue programming and software engineering or become a scientist. He settled on the life sciences, excited to explore the questions of life, rather than the mechanics of clocks, computers and automatons.

A man wearing safety glasses and a lab coat leans over a computer keyboard, attentively looking at the screen. He's surrounded by laboratory equipment and three other scientists in lab coats.
Curtis Walton and the IPI team. IPI photo by Sabrina Liu.

Biology, he felt, could reveal molecular interactions that impact health; but chemistry could strip problems back to their fundamental chemical framework. Putting the two together and studying biochemistry, Walton could finally understand how molecules were built, why they interacted in such seemingly complex ways and how they fulfilled particular functions.

More specifically, Walton became enthralled with aminotransferases, a group of enzymes important in amino acid metabolism. These biocatalysts can be used to track disease and replace toxic heavy metal catalysts in the synthesis of enantiopure compounds, which are pure chemical compounds that exist in just one unique shape or chirality. For his doctoral research, he focused on engineering aminotransferases to produce a variety of aromatic D-amino acids, “high-value building blocks” that are used in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals.

Always automating

From there, he took his first post-graduate position in 2018 as a scientist at a Canadian cannabinoid research startup, Hyasynth Bio. Until the mid-2010s, Canadian authorities treated marijuana as a controlled substance, making research into the pharmaceutical compounds of cannabis difficult. But with legalization in 2018, that roadblock was lifted. Hyasynth was at the forefront of the race to develop microbial-derived cannabinoids that could be used for research or market products, and they needed a protein scientist with a startup mentality — someone like Walton.

It was a “very easy transition,” according to Walton, who spent two years engineering lead candidates and identifying potential enzymes for cannabinoid production in bacteria and yeast.

By August 2020, Walton was ready for a change. He moved to the U.S. and joined a growing computational team at Conagen, a commercial biotech using enzyme and microorganism platforms to deliver synthetic biology solutions to the food and beverage, renewable materials and pharma markets alike.

As a senior scientist at Conagen, Walton was given carte blanche to lay the foundations of an automation infrastructure, gearing up the lab for more effective production. Given his background and knack for building labs — a skill he learned on the fly during grad school — he was promoted to director of computational and automated biology, where he gained daily experience running a multidisciplinary team spanning bioinformatics, protein engineering, analytical chemistry and strain engineering.

“Productivity or innovation is questioning established protocols, thinking outside of the box and coming up with new and better ways of performing engineering,” Walton says.

Fostering discovery

Curtis Walton wears a checkered, collared shirt and smiles in the IPI office.
Curtis Walton. IPI photo by Sabrina Liu.

Walton was happy leading this charge in industry, but then he stumbled onto IPI, where the principles and protocols of an industrial pipeline were being deployed for scientific impact rather than profit. As a nonprofit, IPI was producing antibodies to families of proteins studding the cell surface, known as the cell surfaceome, and expanding access to those imperative protein tools — and the Institute was ready to scale.

“If we want to tackle the surfaceome or every single human protein, the only way we’re going to achieve that is with automation,” says Walton, who joined IPI last year.

In the short term, Walton is focused on gathering the right hardware and constructing the best team. Once these foundations are in place, he aims to upgrade IPI’s systems, improve workflow and increase capacity for automation within just a few years. His end goal is to use automation to develop a robust and consistent pipeline, freeing scientists of repetitive tasks so they can allot more time to research and discovery.

“We’re in a very unique position to help advance the biomedical field,” he says, “and put antibodies out into the world that wouldn’t otherwise be made available.”

Source: Curtis Walton,
Writer: Caitlin Faulds,

About IPI

The Institute for Protein Innovation is pioneering a new approach to scientific discovery and collaboration. As a nonprofit research institute, we provide the biomedical research community with synthetic antibodies and deep protein expertise, empowering scientists to explore fundamental biological processes and pinpoint new targets for therapeutic development. Our mission is to advance protein science to accelerate research and improve human health. For more information, visit or follow us on social media, @ipiproteins.

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