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Founders Fund Backs a Robotic Lab that Puts Science in the Cloud

Emerald Therapeutics raises $13.5 million and rolls out its first product.

Courtesy: Emerald Therapeutics

Emerald Therapeutics is developing potential treatments for viral infections like HIV and HPV. But they’re not ready to talk about that yet.

What the stealth startup is ready to discuss is a tool they built in an effort to accelerate that work: A completely robotic lab that the company believes could aid other researchers as well, effectively serving as a kind of Amazon Web Services for science.

The nearly 20-person company has packed a 5,000-square-foot facility in a little office park in Silicon Valley with more than $2 million worth of mass spectrometers, automated pipettes and microscopes, capable of carrying out remote life sciences experiments under controlled conditions.

The four-year old company is officially launching the Emerald Cloud Laboratory on Tuesday and will begin accepting applications for an “outward-facing beta trial.” They believe the product can make life sciences experiments faster, cheaper and easier, in much the way that cloud services helped dramatically lower the barriers to entry for web businesses and apps.

Potential customers includes established institutions that lack the manpower or specific tools to carry out certain experiments, or individual researchers and startups with no labs at all.

“We really hope this system, in addition to supporting labs that are currently doing research, will also enable people to do their own research and form new companies for a fraction of the cost it currently takes,” said Daniel Jerome Kleinbaum, the company’s co-founder and co-CEO, who earned a PhD in organic chemistry at Stanford.

Emerald is also announcing it raised $13.5 million over two funding rounds (the earlier of which wasn’t made public) from Founders Fund, PayPal Co-Founder Max Levchin and Schooner Capital.

Scientists can ship their samples to the lab and then log onto the company website to dial in specific parameters for their experiments. The researchers can then access, analyze and share the data through a set of online tools.

The cloud lab can currently carry out 40 standard life sciences experiments, such as Western Blots tests that identify specific proteins in tissue. The company expects to support up to 120 within the next year and a half.

Other businesses have emerged to provide specific types of cloud-based scientific services. Google Ventures-backed DNAnexus, for example, offers tools to store, manage and analyze the massive data generated by genome sequencing.

But Emerald Cloud Lab is competing most directly with contract research organizations, fully-equipped labs and researchers who conduct outsourced experiments on behalf of other institutions.

Brian Frezza, co-founder and co-CEO of Emerald Therapeutics, said the key advantage here is that the scientist still sits at the controls, adjusting parameters to maintain greater command over how the experiment is carried out. They also get a detailed picture of the exact conditions under which the process occurs, down to the temperature and humidity in the lab.

“The whole goal is to give people total control over the experiment,” Frezza said.

Because the experiments are carried out by robots under these precisely described conditions, the company also believes the experiments will be more reproducible.

That has become a critical issue in life sciences. A former Amgen researcher said in a 2012 piece for Nature that his team couldn’t reproduce the results in 47 of 53 cancer studies published in top journals.

“This low success rate is not sustainable or acceptable, and investigators must reassess their approach to translating discovery research into greater clinical success and impact,” wrote C. Glenn Begley and his co-author Lee Ellis, in the commentary.

Of course, scientists themselves will have to judge whether Emerald’s results are actually more reliable — and whether they’ll even want to outsource experiments over which they have traditionally wanted to maintain exacting levels of control.

But the company’s backers have high hopes.

“While Amazon Web Services was amazing for what it did for the software industry, we’re only at the very, very start of this for life sciences,” said Brian Singerman, a partner at early Emerald investor Founders Fund, who sits on the company’s board along with Levchin.

“We need to get the costs down by orders of magnitude,” he said. “It’s one of the most important things we can do for humanity and the Emerald Cloud represents a huge leap toward that.”

Update: This story has been updated with the correct name of co-founder Daniel Jerome Kleinbaum.

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