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Emerald Therapeutics: A Robotic Laboratory in the Cloud

While there are enough Steve Jobs sycophants to go around these days, the fact is that he was an incredibly difficult person to work with and made as many enemies as he did friends. Love him or hate him, the man was a visionary who once said that “the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be at the intersection of biology and technology”. With the advances being made in synthetic biology, it’s not hard to imagine a future where you can sit down and code your own synthetic organisms in the same way you can create a software program today. One interesting company sitting at the intersection of biology and technology is Emerald Therapeutics.

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Founded in 2010,  San Francisco based Emerald Therapeutics has taken in $34 million in funding so far from the likes of Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. In July of 2014, the Company unveiled their Emerald Cloud Laboratory (ECL) which is a state-of-the-art life sciences laboratory that scientists can remotely access via the Internet, where automated robotics conduct experiments exactly as specified by the user. This “lab in the cloud” is a 15,000 square foot space which contains over $3 million in lab equipment that can now be used by anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card. The data from any experiments run in the ECL, as well as the rights to any material sent to the ECL or created using the ECL, belong to the user.

The entire process of submitting an experiment is controlled by an objective programming language called Symbolic Lab Language (or SLL), a framework that Emerald has built over the last four years. The SLL is used to describe how experiments are conducted in advance of their execution without any ambiguity as seen in the below example:

Cloud_Experiment_ExampleThe above experiment can then be submitted to the Emerald Cloud Lab where it will be executed in a matter of days with the results stored in a database that can be accessed any time, any place by the scientist. With the average experiment costing just $25, the scientific community embraced this offering with such enthusiasm that you now have to sign up to a waitlist in order to begin using the service. Emerald will spend 2015 scaling their offering and expects over 100 different types of experiments to be available by the end of 2016 which will represent 100 percent of all life science tests.

The ECL has a number of key-value propositions to offer the scientific community. The first is the lower cost of experiments and the accessibility which will eliminate the barriers to entry for many startups and help accelerate innovation. The second is the predictability of experiments. Since the entire testing process is conducted by robots, there is no element of human error introduced into the experiments. The third is the aggregated knowledge that will accumulate with all the experiments being stored in the cloud. One can imagine how useful it would be to “share experiments” with others who are working on the same type of projects.

While the ECL offering has gained significant traction based on the demands of the scientific community, there’s really no barrier to entry for other companies to offer a similar service. The real intellectual property here is the SLL coding language which is a key component of the entire platform. If in fact ECL can offer 100 percent of life science experiments, and at the same time scale the platform to meet demand, they will have first-mover advantage which should discourage potential competitors from entering this space.

The biotech IPO window seems to be slamming shut with biotech stocks being punished lately. Emerald’s last Series C round of funding of $20 million came in June 2015, so it’s hard to see them going to the market for an IPO anytime soon.

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