The Future of Life Sciences is Laboratory Automation
“If it flies, floats, or fornicates, always rent it. It’s cheaper in the long run.” That’s one of the many gems of wisdom you’ll find in the book How to Get Rich by U.K. entrepreneur Felix Dennis. If he were alive today, Mr. Dennis might add lab equipment to the list of things that should be rented.
The appeal of renting something for only the time you’re using it is what the on-demand economy is all about. Cars spend 95% of the time parked. Through the use of Uber, we’ve democratized access to cars for transportation. We’ve also increased the utilization of expensive machinery. The same value proposition holds for laboratory equipment.
Laboratory Automation in the Cloud
It’s much easier to start a company when you have access to millions of dollars’ worth of lab equipment while only paying for what you use. That’s the idea behind the emergence of cloud-based laboratories where you can run just about any experiment with nothing but a credit card.
The Emerald Cloud Lab
The pioneer in this space is a company we first wrote about back in 2015 – Emerald Therapeutics: A Robotic Laboratory in the Cloud. Since that piece, the company renamed to Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL) and has taken in $92.1 million in total funding. They now offer a complete life sciences laboratory in the cloud with new types of lab equipment coming online every quarter.
Since their inception, little has been disclosed about ECL’s progress, but we can only assume their business is booming given “the Rona” has everyone staying at home. An article by Carnegie Mellon University talks about how they plan to increase usage of ECL’s cloud laboratory offering to train undergraduates. Cloud laboratories are moving from the exception to the norm, and ECL isn’t the only company that stands to benefit from this.
The Strateos Robotic Cloud Platform
In our 2018 article on Laboratory Automation – Robots for Life Scientists, we looked at a company called Transcriptic which began offering lab automation services to synbio giant Ginkgo Bioworks. Today, Transcriptic goes by a new name – Strateos – and they’ve taken in $44.3 million in funding so far. The new name came about last year when Transcriptic merged with 3Scan, a startup that uses computer vision and robotics to analyze tissue samples, slicing tissue at a rate of 3,600 slices per hour while taking an image of each slice. Previously a manual process, 3Scan can perform around a year’s worth of tissue sample processing in a single day.
The combined companies now offer a platform that’s attracted the attention of some big names in the pharmaceutical industry. Earlier this year, Eli Lilly unveiled a drug discovery lab developed on the Strateos platform that includes more than 100 instruments and storage for over 5 million compounds, all within a closed-loop. Across the pond, another startup is also working on lab automation systems for drug discovery.
Automating Drug Discovery
Founded in 2016, Oxford U.K. startup Arctoris has taken in $6.2 million in funding to develop what they call “the world’s first fully automated drug discovery platform.” Tailored for the drug discovery process, the platform generates deeper, richer, and more reliable data quickly for all drug discovery companies, including, but not limited to AI-driven drug discovery companies such as Insilico.
One good example of how the platform is being used is the work they’re doing with Hungarian startup Turbine which is simulating cancer cells using artificial intelligence. When Turbine finds new drug targets using their simulations, Arctoris then validates them using their automated wet lab. All of the AI drug discovery companies we’ve looked at over the years would be potential users of the Arctoris platform to test new hypotheses, to collect data, to progress projects from in vitro to in vivo testing, and to satisfy regulators.
Drug discovery isn’t the only niche application for laboratory automation.
Automating Materials Discovery
Founded in 2017, Massachusetts startup Kebotix recently emerged from stealth mode after raising $16.4 million in disclosed funding. They’ve developed a platform that uses machine learning and laboratory automation to help discover new materials. In a pilot project, the platform enabled a fivefold reduction in lab supplies and labor. That’s according to an article by VentureBeat which talks about how Kebotix will initially focus on molecule discovery for electronic applications, and then new polymers and alloys.
Growing Cells in The Cloud
The emergence of synthetic biology has resulted in an increased demand for bioreactors, devices that provide an environment where cells can grow. Founded in 2016, San Francisco startup Culture Biosciences has taken in $20.6 million in funding to build out a collection of high-throughput reactors that are used to grow cells. Send them organisms like yeasts, bacteria, and fungi, and their software lets you design experiments which you can monitor in real-time. You can collect samples during or after the experiment, and Culture will deliver them one day after the experiment ends. Clients include names like Zymergen and Modern Meadow.
The companies we’ve talked about so far offer comprehensive lab automation solutions, and it’s part of a bigger trend for lab equipment providers to move towards automation.
Software and Hardware Providers
While startups like ECL and Strateos offer end-to-end solutions, there are many companies specializing in the various components of a full-stack solution such as the software and hardware components.
Laboratory Automation Software
Founded in 2012, San Francisco startup Benchling has taken in nearly $112 million in disclosed funding to develop a unified platform to centralize and standardize all R&D data for laboratory researchers. With a 99% retention rate, it’s clear that the 270,000 scientists using the software find value in it. If you’re a life sciences company doing in-house R&D on your own laboratory equipment, Benchling has become a must-have software solution in much the same way Salesforce is a mandatory piece of software for any enterprise sales department.
An article by Forbes talks about how one of Benchling’s investors found the company because all the life sciences companies in their portfolio were adopting the solution. That’s because the software is also being used in the academic world where future employees and entrepreneurs become accustomed to using it.
Lab automation isn’t just restricted to full-stack laboratory solutions like ECL and Strateos. Companies that produce laboratory equipment are increasingly moving towards integrating laboratory workflow automation into the hardware.
Laboratory Automation Hardware
On the hardware side, there are numerous firms developing laboratory automation solutions. We previously looked at startup Opentrons which is developing a pipetting robot technology designed to automate experiments, but there are also plenty of private firms flying under the radar with lab automation technologies. One such firm is Nevada’s Hamilton Company which is selling automated liquid handling workstations and sample management systems. The automated chemistry systems of Switzerland’s Chemspeed Technologies ‘condense’ many instrument capabilities into one platform, thereby simplifying the operations required.
New Joisey’s own Hudson Robotics produces robotic instruments to solve specific lab automation needs in the areas of microplate and liquid handling. Across the pond, English firm PAA develops automated workcells and cobots that power fully automated laboratories.
These are just a few examples of lesser-known companies developing the advanced hardware that allows these laboratories in the cloud to achieve full automation capabilities.
Some of the biggest life sciences companies in the world are moving towards laboratory automation because of one key benefit we haven’t talked about yet – reproducibility.
The Importance of Reproducibility
Software quality assurance (SQA) professionals know how important reproducibility is. You do not report a defect to a developer unless you can reproduce it, otherwise you’ll get the “it works on my machine” response, and you’ll lose what little credibility you had left. Likewise, your life sciences experiment holds little water unless it can be reproduced. An automated system removes process variability.
An article by Forbes talks about the reproducibility problem, stating:
Studies by pharma companies Bayer and Amgen have proven that up to 89% of published research findings cannot be reproduced by independent third parties. There are a number of reasons to blame for this lack of reproducibility, such as lack of standardization, use of non-validated reagents, and inconsistent experimental conditions.Credit: Forbes
Now, imagine a future where every lab experiment is tracked using distributed ledger technology so that every piece of equipment used, every sample, every chemical, is etched indelibly into an indisputable record of the experiment. That’s only possible with fully automated laboratories. It’s the future of life sciences, and perhaps the most exciting value add that cloud laboratories offer.
It’s becoming harder and harder for wantrepreneurs to argue that the man is holding them back. Now that anyone can access some of the most sophisticated laboratory equipment on this planet with a credit card, it’s not a matter of access to equipment that’s holding back success, at least in developed markets. With the world’s information available to anyone with an internet connection, it’s not access to education either.
Twitter critics often criticize wealthy self-made entrepreneurs without acknowledging the insane amount of work that goes into creating wealth. To quote Felix Dennis, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Now, a whole lot more people around the globe can get lucky building the life sciences breakthroughs of tomorrow.
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