In a few years, running scientific lab experiments could be as simple as shopping online.
A group of Silicon Valley startups situated within a few miles of each other are racing to sharply lower the cost of preclinical research by essentially putting the lab in the cloud, a kind of Amazon Web Services for science geeks.
Many of these companies’ labs are powered by software and largely automated by robots to perform experiments, replacing tedious procedures such as counting cells or dropping liquid into test tubes. Researchers can then remotely select experiments and get sent the results.
Need a gene sequence? DNA2.0 Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif., company can ship one in within five business days. Need to store samples in subzero freezers? Transcriptic Inc., 4 miles away, will do it for a monthly fee. Just 400 feet away, Emerald Therapeutics Inc. can now run 41 types of experiments.
"Anyone with a credit card and an Internet connection will be able to go and run experiments," said D.J. Kleinbaum, co-founder and co-CEO of Emerald, which plans to open the service to select clients this year.
For now, the technology is fairly limited and success is far from assured. For instance, the number of experiments Emerald can run at any given time is constrained by the size of its roughly 5,000 square-foot lab. But the trend represents another example of how software is upending industries resistant to change.
Laboratory research for life sciences—the canon that includes cancer, viral and DNA research—has a high barrier to entry. A basic lab with the necessary equipment generally costs at least $1 million to start up, not including the time and expense to test the equipment and replace defective merchandise. The financial burden constrains experiments and makes it hard for garage-sized startups to get off the ground.
That was the challenge facing Emerald Therapeutics in 2010.
Dr. Kleinbaum and co-founder Brian Frezza, a childhood friend and classmate from Carnegie Mellon University, had finished their Ph.Ds on the West Coast. The plan was to go back to Carnegie Mellon, where they were promised free lab space to start Emerald, then a company focused on treating viral infections such as HIV. Before they left, they got a call from investor Peter Thiel, who wanted a week to convince them they could build such a company in Silicon Valley. After living out of Dr. Kleinbaum’s car and a Motel 6 room for three months, the pair was convinced, and Mr. Thiel led their first round of funding through his venture-capital firm, Founders Fund.
To make it work, they needed to build a hyper-efficient lab that could let three people do the work of 30. The centerpiece would be a software program that stitches together lab equipment and measures every detail of an experiment.
The founders realized last December the cloud lab could be a business after a team member reported she had processed over 50,000 microscope images and done cell counts on them in less than 24 months. It would typically take a decade for scientists to manually perform such a task, Dr. Frezza said.
Scientists like Dr. Frezza are gravitating toward the cloud for another reason: data collection. Melding lab equipment with software makes it easier to gather and store data such as the lab’s humidity or the equipment’s material composition. Such fine details, typically recorded and often lost in notebooks, could affect an experiment’s reproducibility, a critical goal for researchers trying to prove a point.
From the outside, Emerald’s multimillion-dollar lab doesn’t look like much. The office is tucked in the back of a nondescript office park. But inside, a sophisticated maze of robotic arms manipulate tiny pipettes and giant machines, all hooked up to Emerald’s software.
Lab operators take care of basic tasks such as loading sample trays into the machines, and the machines do the heavy lifting: executing tests and cataloging every piece of data and sending it back to the cloud.
Future clients, theoretically, would never see the lab. Their only interaction with Emerald would be online, where they can input their parameters and track their results. Clients can send their own physical samples for testing and request samples and results to be mailed back to them.
The average price for an experiment on one sample is expected to cost about $5 to $25, Dr. Kleinbaum said. For now, Emerald’s experiments are confined to preclinical research and aren’t equipped for live animals, such as mice and monkeys.
Dr. Frezza sees Emerald’s relatively low prices as the key to surmounting one of its greatest challenges: getting labs to trust and use the system.
Then there is the issue of scale. Emerald, which has raised $13.5 million from investors, can only accommodate about 10 clients at the same time. Dr. Kleinbaum said the startup is planning to move to a bigger facility this fall that could handle hundreds of clients.
Transcriptic, also backed by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, is already fulfilling orders for research teams at Stanford University and California Institute of Technology, and working on bulking up its staff of 16 employees.
For Emerald, there is another awkward problem if its cloud lab succeeds: It could help competitors outdo the other side of Emerald’s business focused on viral research. "Board members have asked me, "What if someone cures HIV before you?" said Dr. Frezza. "Well, we’ll all pop champagne bottles and move on to the next problem."