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Test Control: Bruce Chen

To stay at the cutting edge of any industry is tough enough, but doing so in the field of analytical testing requires a significant amount of research and development muscle. It’s a high-wire sector where mistakes can be extremely costly, so ensuring the testing process is as thorough, exact and timely as can be is crucial.

Bruce Chen, Managing Director of Symbio Laboratories

“Food manufacturers and regulators rely on microbiological test results to make important decisions about the quality and compliance of their products,” explains Bruce Chen, Managing Director of Symbio Laboratories. “The challenge for any testing laboratory is to provide these results in the manner that is most accurate, yet quick and cost-effective, to help these parties make the right decision at the right time.”

To do so is even harder than it sounds. While microbiology has seen significant advancements since Symbio was established in 1997, particularly in the area of automation, the company has invested heavily in R&D to keep ahead of the curve. “Back then, the Symbio board of directors recognised the importance of being vigilant about the advancement of technology and innovation, and that undertaking strategic projects to do with innovation would lead to exponential future growth,” he says.

That vision has come to pass. Today, Symbio’s R&D program is planned and coordinated by the company’s technical directors and the national laboratory managers. It executes approximately 40–60 different projects each year, which lead to the integral improvement of laboratory efficiency as well as the company’s long-term sustainability. “Some of these projects have led directly to winning significant contracts because Symbio is able to offer efficiencies and capabilities our competitors cannot,” Bruce shares.

Innovation in our laboratory operations applies to every department, whether it’s chemistry, microbiology, sample management, customer service or it.

One of Australia’s leading test laboratories, Symbio integrates novel technology in its offerings to provide accurate, meaningful and rapid information to the industry. Automation is a stand-out in the Symbio network, with fully automated robotic liquid handling platforms for real-time polymerase chain reaction-based testing and agar plating robots for routine microbiology testing.

“Automation plays a very key role in our routine operations, allowing us to stay competitive at all times,” Bruce says. Investing in innovation has paid off for both Symbio and its clients. “We leverage our IT solutions to better manage and present client data in a personalised way to help them make timely decisions,” Bruce adds. The microbiological testing processes that existed at the time of Symbio’s inception haven’t aged well – they’re slow, costly and not amenable to multiplexing. “Real-time PCR technology is a rapid alternative to conventional culturebased methods,” Bruce says.

“It’s sensitive, robust and ideal for high-throughput testing.” Additionally, Symbio offers multiplex PCR-based rapid testing for food- and water-borne pathogens, MALDI-TOFbased rapid identification and confirmation of microbes, flow cytometry-based rapid milk testing, and whole genome sequencing as part of its food safety management program. Multiplex PCR is a particularly effective weapon in Symbio’s arsenal, allowing for simultaneous amplification of different pathogenic microorganisms in a single reaction. This method is put to use in routine food and water pathogen testing, food authenticity testing and even meat species identification.

“Multiplex PCR saves time, requires fewer samples, increases throughput and reduces overall test costs,” Bruce explains. These are just some of the many innovations that have shaped Symbio during its 25-year journey and, according to Bruce, there’s no sign of slowing down.

“We are constantly improving our automation and efficiency, and looking at the enhancement of our analytical methods,” he confirms. “Innovation in our laboratory operations applies to every department, whether it’s chemistry, microbiology, sample management, customer service or IT.” Symbio’s clients enjoy the skills and experience of a large and diverse professional team, one that’s extremely resourceful in the development of in-house strategies and solutions.


“While Symbio is proud of our clients and partnerships, we’re extremely proud of our in-house capability,” he smiles. “This has been strenuously developed over the years to allow us to remain at the forefront of the industry.” The Symbio team exists within a culture of constant encouragement, growth and exploration, Bruce says. “We’re extremely dedicated to training, with extensive development of employees right down to our junior staff.”

Part of this development is the regular enhancement of Symbio’s facilities. The firm already has laboratories all around Australia, soon to be joined by a state-of-the-art, three-level facility at Ravenhall in Melbourne’s west. The new arrival will focus specifically on the development of high-end advanced molecular biology technology.

“We’re very excited for the Ravenhall facility’s completion in June 2022. At more than 10,000 square metres, it’s probably going to be one of the biggest and most comprehensive commercial laboratory facilities in the Southern Hemisphere,” he enthuses. As Managing Director of such a blossoming scientific enterprise, Bruce believes the most important part of his job is guiding and mentoring his team to be the best they can be.

“I like giving my staff sufficient room to grow themselves,” he reflects, although that’s not to say he’s a hands-off boss. “While not ‘micromanaging’, it’s also important to equip yourself with the ability to intervene, and know when it may be necessary.”

Testing has become more important than ever in recent times, and the genie is unlikely to go back into the bottle. Symbio has worked hard for a quarter of a century to become one of the leaders of Australia’s laboratory testing industry, and this is unlikely to change. According to Bruce, perseverance and success are in its DNA. “It’s quite simple. Symbio is constantly looking at the improvement of our analytical methods, and innovation in our laboratory operations. The day we stop doing that is the day we stop.”

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