Here’s a look at Emerald Biotherapeutics (a name that’s unfortunately easy to confuse with several other former Emeralds in this space). They’re engaged in their own drug research, but they also have lab services for sale, using a proprietary system that they say generates fast, reproducible assays.
On July 1 the company unveiled a service that lets other labs send it instructions for their experiments via the Web. Robots then complete the work. The idea is a variation on the cloud-computing model, in which companies rent computers by the hour from Amazon.com, Google, and Microsoft instead of buying and managing their own equipment. In this case, biotech startups could offload some of their basic tasks—counting cells one at a time or isolating proteins—freeing their researchers to work on more complex jobs and analyze results. To control the myriad lab machines, Emerald has developed its own computer language and management software. The company is charging clients $1 to $100 per experiment and has vowed to return results within a day.
The Bloomberg Businessweek piece profiling them does a reasonable job, but I can’t tell if its author knows that there’s already a good amount of outsourcing of this type already. Emerald’s system does indeed sound fast, though. But rarely does the quickness of an assay turn out to be the real bottleneck in any drug discovery effort, so I’m not sure how much of a selling point that is. The harder parts are the ones that can’t be automated: figuring out what sort of assay to run, and troubleshooting it so that it can be reliably run on high-throughput machines are not trivial processes, and they can take a lot of time and effort. Even more difficult is the step before any of that: figuring out what you’re going to be assaying at all. What’s your target? What are you screening for? What’s the great idea behind the whole project? That stuff is never going to be automated at all, and it’s the key to the whole game.
But when I read things like this, I wonder a bit:
While pursuing the antiviral therapy, Emerald began developing tools to work faster. Each piece of lab equipment, made by companies including Agilent Technologies (A) and Thermo Fisher Scientific (TMO), had its own often-rudimentary software. Emerald’s solution was to write management software that centralized control of all the machines, with consistent ways to specify what type of experiment to run, what order to mix the chemicals in, how long to heat something, and so on. “There are about 100 knobs you can turn with the software,” says Frezza. Crucially, Emerald can store all the information the machines collect in a single database, where scientists can analyze it. This was a major advance over the still common practice of pasting printed reports into lab notebooks.
Well, that may be common in some places, but in my own experience, that paste-the-printed-report stuff went out a long time ago. Talking up the ability to have all the assay data collected in one place sounds like something from about fifteen or twenty years ago, although the situation can be different for the small startups who would be using Emerald (or their competitors) for outsourced assay work. But I would still expect any CRO shop to provide something better than a bunch of paper printouts!
Emerald may well have something worth selling, and I wish them success with it. Reproducible assays with fast turnaround are always welcome. But this article’s “Gosh everything’s gone virtual now wow” take on it isn’t quite in line with reality.