There’s a basic formula these days for anyone looking to develop a cure for a disease. Along with a good idea, you need $20 million, a team of about 30 scientists, and a year to set up the lab equipment to start testing your theory. From there, the grunt work begins, as your team of well-paid researchers squirts fluid into test tubes, feeds chemicals into machines, and analyzes the results from thousands of experiments. If you luck out and discover something useful, then it’s time to pray that the desired result can be replicated.
Emerald Therapeutics, a 17-person startup in Silicon Valley, claims to have modernized much of this burdensome process, which might make drug discovery faster and cheaper. 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. “Emerald has brought laboratory experimentation into the digital age, allowing truly virtual scientific research,” says David Pompliano, a former executive with Merck and GlaxoSmithKline who is advising the company. “This will lead to better science.”