Innovation in biotechnology is hindered by the lack of two major factors. The first is reproducibility. Most of the experiments in scientific publications are difficult to reproduce. In fact, when Bayer set out to replicate the findings of a random selection of published life sciences work it could only do so for 25% of papers. Amgen reproduced just 11% of the results in a similar research-verification mission. The second is accessibility. Very few people have access to the equipment or capital required to start a lab. Even if you do, it can take many months or even years of research before you have even a single product in the pipeline.
This is why, historically, biotech startups have been few and most have failed to build a successful business. One startup is determined to change the status quo and enable the paradigm shift by taking biotech to the cloud.
By scientists, for scientists
Emerald Cloud Lab was launched in July by life-long friends and chemistry PhDs Brian Frezza and DJ Kleinbaum. Their goal? To democratize biotech research by giving people the power to run physical lab experiments while sitting in front of their computers. Together with its parent company, anti-viral biotech Emerald Therapeutics, it has raised $13.5 million over two funding rounds and is backed by the Founder’s Fund, Max Levchin (co-founder of PayPal), and Schooner Capital. Now, the startup has developed its internal framework for experimentation into a state-of-the-art biotech lab on the cloud that is open to others and can more than 40 different types of experiments remotely.
All of the instruments in the lab are controlled robotically using centralized software. The online user interface is based on the Wolfram language while the wet lab back-end is coded in Symbolic Lab Language (SLL), developed by Emerald’s team of PhD scientists and engineers. Anyone can ship in their samples to the company or choose from standard enzymes and plasmids from a drop-down menu and then conduct basic experiments such as spectroscopy, electrophoresis, and blotting. The user can control his experiments with a high degree of precision with few inputs and no knowledge of coding. All one needs to access the facility is a credit card and an internet connection.
The advantages are three-fold. The experiments are quick and the company claims to hand out the results, organized in a database, within 48 hours. “This only works if we can keep the cycle time extremely fast,” Kleinbaum told SynBioBeta. “This needs to be like Amazon Prime but for scientific experiments.” The service is cheap and is expected to prove to be a boon to DIY biologists looking for ways to do some serious tinkering, and professionals looking to try something outside the scope of their labs. The major development is the increased reproducibility, since the results would also consist of the exact parameters of the instruments and samples during the experimentation.
The number of experiments are planned to be expanded into hundreds in the next few years. Innovative labs in academia and industry would be invited to design their own experiments over the cloud. As of now, it is in private alpha testing and beta rollout is planned to begin in early 2015. The cloud lab, which represents a unique concept of science as a service, has the potential to accelerate innovation in the biotech industry. Kleinbaum has told TechCrunch that the Emerald Cloud Lab’s goal is to become the “Amazon Web Services of wet lab experiments.”
Innovating drug development
Everyone is familiar with Moore’s law. In case you aren’t, Gordon Moore of Intel predicted that the computing power of silicon will double every 18 months. The prediction turned out to be correct and the rest is history. A similar trend can be seen in the biotech industry in the steep drop of sequencing and synthesis costs, one of the factors behind the emergence of synthetic biology. But, the trend is the reverse in drug development and is called the Eroom’s law, Moore spelled backwards.
The number of new drugs being approved per billion dollars of money spent is decreasing, as much as by half every nine years. The inefficiency or research and development ensures that drug development remains the polity of the big, multinational corporations and that most life-saving drugs remain unaffordable for the majority of people in the world. This is why the current drug development model needs to give way to a more democratic approach — and why the cloud and open source models hold so much promise. Emerald’s platform removes the requirement of large capital expenditures from the drug development process and in doing so enables a wider swath of people to design and test new scientific ideas.
Low cost, high impact
Taking biotech to the cloud will foster entrepreneurship in biotechnology, particularly in synthetic biology, where open source concepts are widely deployed. Platforms such as Emerald Cloud Lab would ensure that more startups spring up, which would spur fresh innovation in biotech; tackling problems such as orphan diseases more efficiently than big corporations. As Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner has said about the company, “I foresee that the system could be used to repeat the published experiments in an objective way and allow companies in particular to assure themselves before committing large resources to development.” The DIY biologist gladly will, and the scientists should too, adopt Emerald to take drug development into the open source. Theoretically, the only thing that limits Emerald is space, which they will be expanding gradually to maintain quality as their users grow in number. The only thing that limits the users is their ability to design and conduct experiments. Welcome to the solution.1