Hardly a week goes by in Silicon Valley without someone launching a new food-delivery or ride-sharing app. Meanwhile, we're running out of antibiotics that work. What's going on here? Why is new drug development so comparatively torpid when app development is so torrid?
The founders of Emerald Therapeutics, D.J. Kleinbaum and Brian Frezza, think it comes down to the difficulty of running experiments in the life sciences. A typical new experiment takes a month to set up -- a month during which a scientist with a decade of education might find herself lugging around jugs of reagent or pipetting. And that's when nothing goes wrong.
"There are these major roadblocks to doing research that all involve the energy you have to sink into the lab itself," said Frezza on Tuesday evening, speaking at the opening of the new Emerald Cloud Laboratory in South San Francisco. The ECL is Frezza and Kleinbaum's solution to the friction they believe is holding back progress in their field.
Dubbed ECL-1, because it's intended to be the first of many, the gleaming warehouse-like space is filled with state-of-the-art instruments for DNA sequencing, gas chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance and other standard types of experiments. It's also filled with robots that prep and carry out the trials, with minimal oversight from human operators. Thanks to the high degree of automation, a team of two or three technicians can carry out up to 50 experiments simultaneously. "It's all about each experiment being 'push a button, walk away,'" Kleinbaum said during a tour of the facility.
The protocols themselves are uploaded to ECL's servers remotely by clients. (Hence the "Cloud" part.) Frezza and Kleinbaum liken the arrangement to Amazon Web Services, which triggered an explosion in the number of new internet startups by removing the need to own one's own servers as a barrier to entry.
Running experiments over the cloud is cost-competitive and far more time efficient; in Emerald's old lab, average setup time was a mere 25 minutes. But it's also superior in terms of standardization and reproducibility, with the environment engineered to control for and measure a host of variables, from ambient air temperature to the length of rubber tubing, that often get overlooked. Capturing so much more data this way gives investigators what Kleinbaum calls "full computational closure," and it's a big part of the ECL's value proposition. "If we're asking people to experiment out of place and out of time, it's not enough to just give them an equivalent experience," he says. "We have to give them a richer experience."
If Kleinbaum and Frezza are sensitive to the needs of researchers, it's because it was in that role that they started Emerald Therapeutics in 2010. Attempting to raise funding for their effort to develop a novel therapy for persistent viral infections, the co-founders, who've been best friends since they grew up together in Philadelphia, were on the verge of giving up and heading back to the east coast when Peter Thiel personally persuaded them to stay in town. A few weeks later, his Founders Fund wrote them their first check. They've raised more than $13 million to date.
Work on their viral cure is ongoing but deep in stealth mode. Frezza says it will be perhaps a year before they're ready to talk about it publicly. Meanwhile, in the next 18 months they plan to invest another $7 million in the ECL, more than doubling the number of different experiments it's capable of carrying out.