Depending on the scope and complexity of the research at hand, the items of equipment needed to perform vital tests can be numerous, sizeable, and expensive. The lack of available lab space, investment funds, and even time needed to conduct tests on these advanced machines can make it difficult (if not impossible) for start-up and mid-size operations to get their hands on such machines, and thereby compete with bigger contract research organizations (CROs).
Emerald Cloud Lab’s novel solution enables even humble-sized scientific operations to make use of high-end laboratory equipment by offering remote access to such advanced gear remotely, for a monthly fee that amounts to less than the cost of investing in a single piece of equipment. Toby Blackburn, ECL’s vice president of business and development, took the time to speak with Outsourcing-Pharma about the advantages the solution offers, and some of the notable organizations that have taken advantage.
OSP: Could you please talk about the concept of “automated science” and how researchers are growing to understand and accept it?
TB: Researchers in science are beginning to look around at other industries (tech, manufacturing, distribution, etc.), and the advancements that technology has made in those areas, and are asking themselves why they are still operating labs the same way they did more than two decades ago. The technology required to bring the same efficiencies, cost savings, and process improvement to the lab environment is well developed and proven in other industries.
The challenge for the research community has been the degree to which high-skill activities (experimental design, data interpretation, application to molecule/process) have been intertwined with low-skill activities (procurement, inventory management, data recording, sample, and material logistics). The time needed to run a lab is taking time away from research and discovery.
Cloud labs create a separation between scientific discovery and laboratory management, allowing your scientific talent to focus on the science. To realize this vision, our software platform uses AI to intelligently suggest experimental parameters based on sample and other associated information, making it easy to ensure that experiments are fully and unambiguously specified from start to finish.
Fully proceduralized and defined methods are a by-product resulting from day-to-day research, allowing for directly reproducible experiments without additional effort.
Cloud labs also reduce costs by removing the need to construct lab space, purchase equipment, and hire staff. Finally, since the cloud lab runs semi-autonomously at all times day and night, researchers are advancing their experiments much more quickly than if they had to depend on their own collection of instruments.
There is a whole host of positive externalities that arise from this “proceduralization” – remote execution, the ability to move up a level of abstraction (that is, writing a protocol that automatically generates a method, versus writing a protocol that runs a method), cost efficiencies, increased throughput, model quality data on the output, etc.
Functionally, all of Emerald Cloud Lab’s value propositions come out of this fundamental desire to fully define science, using the cloud as the interface between the scientist and the lab.
OSP: The ECL is a novel concept—could you explain how the idea came about? What needs did you and your team see in the industry you felt this solution could address?
TB: Emerald Cloud Lab arose from a need that our co-founders, Brian Frezza and D.J. Kleinbaum, had with their first startup, Emerald Therapeutics. Emerald Therapeutics had a research plan that was much larger than their budget, which necessitated working extremely efficiently. One way they achieved this was to train each scientist to write code so that they could automate aspects of their work whenever possible, thereby multiplying their productivity.
Of course, scientists use the results of one experiment to inform the next experiment, and it quickly became apparent that a bottleneck in this environment was the ability to seamlessly share data between scientists and their experiments, so the founders wrote a unified data-sharing platform for the company.
Having successfully unified and automated experimental data analysis, they then asked themselves if they could go a step further and automate the generation of that data. To make this a worthwhile endeavor such a system should make it easy to specify and run any method that an Emerald scientist wanted, otherwise the time spent programming the method would exceed the time to just run it by hand, which would defeat the point.
Solving this design brief led to the precursor of Emerald Cloud Lab, a unified software environment that allowed scientists to quickly script an experiment and analyze the resulting data. After some time in development, the productivity gains exceeded everyone’s expectations and the founders and board realized that Emerald Cloud Lab could enable other startups and large companies to similarly leverage their scientific talent in ways not possible before.
OSP: How does it work?
TB: It’s easiest to understand how Emerald Cloud Lab works by breaking the process down into four steps: Command, Run, Explore, and Analyze.
In the Command phase, clients ship their samples to an ECL facility and design their experiments in the ECL Command Center application. Every detail of every experiment can be designed without any artificial restrictions — it’s the same as being in the laboratory itself.
ECL can handle materials as small as microliters and micrograms or as large as liters and kilograms, and experiments span the range of capabilities needed in a modern pharmaceutical company. With ECL’s Command Center software, any experimental parameters can be set or modified with a point-and-click interface – or even by directly typing commands into your lab notebook. Once designed, protocols are automatically saved to a database for push-button reproducibility and higher-level scriptability in larger workflows.
In the Run phase, ECL remotely conducts the experiments in a highly automated facility to the scientist’s exact specifications. The lab currently has over 190 different types of instruments online, including HPLC, Mass Spectrometry, and NMR. Once an experiment is submitted through ECL Command Center, it is run automatically. Results are added to the user’s database in just a few days.
In the Explore phase, clients can make use of the “ECL Constellation,” a network of linked database objects that structures data in a highly organized knowledge graph. This graphical database grows automatically over time as more experiments are conducted, containing all data associated with every experiment ever run on the system in an easily searchable format.
We really mean all data here – whether you want to look up the model number of a column used in an experiment, or
the lead time on a specific buffer, or the number of minutes a particular sample spent outside of the freezer during testing. Because ECL Constellation lives in the cloud, data is accessible from any computer with a secure login.
With ECL Constellation, any questions about experiments can be answered in seconds by surfing through this knowledge graph with a few clicks or keystrokes. Searches can be conducted across the full history of experiments run on the system, including system data like the QC reports that ECL runs regularly on its instrumentation.
In the Analyze phase, researchers can use the ECL Command Center for access to an extensive suite of tools to plot, analyze, and visualize results. ECL Command Center offers over 4,500 powerful functions for data visualization, analysis, and simulation.
The software also allows experiments, data, analysis, results, and scientific figures to be exported, shared, or published on the web. These tools can be accessed through a point-and-click interface, or the commands can be directly entered into your lab notebook. This makes it easy to repeat or scale any analysis with a single command and to automate report generation through higher-level scripting.
OSP: Could you please talk about the benefits users of the cloud lab might gain? Please feel free to talk about anything from time savings, cost savings at various levels, the ability to ‘borrow’ equipment rather than…
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