In an increasingly digital world, life sciences and drug discovery are two areas that are still driven by manual techniques and workflows. This manual approach resulted in a reproducibility crisis, according to Mark Fischer-Colbrie, CEO at Strateos, “and [it] undermines the fidelity of scientific experiments. We believe to accelerate scientific discovery, our industry must re-imagine laboratories as smart and automated data centers to generate clean and reproducible data rapidly.”
The startup soon developed the Strateos SmartLab Platform, the world's first remote-access, cloud-based robotic lab. Fischer-Colbrie says that the work his company is doing is “unprecedented in the industry” — combining robotic-controlled compound synthesis with the rapid, automated screening of thousands of compounds (aka “high throughput screening”) and providing automated results to customers in real time, with a full capture of metadata and environmental conditions.
The Future of Science Is Cloud Labs
So how does a robotic cloud-based lab work exactly? Imagine a laboratory full of running experiments, but instead of scientists in goggles and white coats, there are only sophisticated, programmed robotic arms in the room, accurately and precisely making measurements and relentlessly repeating procedures. The scientists using the Strateos robotic cloud lab are able to log into a secure portal from anywhere in the world to monitor and program the robots and access real-time data and results from the cloud computing platform Amazon Web Services.
This is the future that Fischer-Colbrie and his team envisioned and have finally created. When scientists are no longer needed in the lab, they're freed up to focus on the “business end of science,” which means generating new hypotheses, designing experiments, and analyzing data — from anywhere in the world. Another bonus: a cloud-based lab also lends itself to collaboration among scientists from all over the world.
However, this remotely-controlled cloud lab does not run unattended – there are still humans around to keep an eye on the robots. Strateos has a team of robotics engineers on-site full time to troubleshoot any technical difficulties that may arise. “We believe the lab will need fewer scientists in the future. It’s analogous to server farms and cloud computing. Twenty years ago, organizations would have a server room for computation. Today, they use the cloud. Likewise, we see the same trends happening with physical labs and the transition to cloud labs,” explains Fischer-Colbrie.
Saving Time and Money
If time is money, then users of the Strateos remote labs may be seeing big savings all around. The automated workflows generated by the robotic lab reduces hands-on operator time by about 90% on average, although this varies depending on the type of workflow. And the company's recently developed platform, High Throughput Screening Solutions, now allows its users to cut primary screen time almost in half, screening over a million small molecules in as little as 15 days, compared to the standard outsourcing models that do the same in one month or more. “Quicker insights enable our customers to ask more scientific questions that lead to more novel discoveries,” Fischer-Colbrie adds.
Because total accuracy is critical in conducting scientific research, not having a human at the helm can mean much less room for human error and contamination. The robotic lab setup “decreases the incidence of operator-generated error while supporting a complex range of assays that can be run in an automated, scalable environment, resulting in reliable and reproducible data,” Fischer-Colbrie points out.
Rising Demand in a Post-Pandemic World
Like any company that shifted to a remote, work-from-home approach because of the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate and academic scientists alike had to rethink their laboratory strategy. Strateos' remote lab solved the problem for many scientists: the company saw a 500 percent increase in leads year over year, an increase in their sales pipeline, and also onboarded a record high number of new customers. “Because of COVID, more customers are experiencing the benefits of cloud labs, and we expect demand to continue to increase post-COVID,” Fischer-Colbrie says.
The startup's clients — which currently include Eli Lilly, Ginkgo, Amgen, and DARPA — come from all over the globe, spanning the pharma, biotech, and academic sectors, as well as emerging and virtual companies and US government contracts.
Although Strateos is operating out of three locations in California at the moment, the large increase in demand for their services has the company considering options for expansion. Strateos already has plans to add new scientific modules to its facilities in Menlo Park and San Diego, which currently features a 14,000 square-foot space and generates over 100,000 data points per day.
About the Author
Suchi Rudra is a freelance writer who is passionate about covering emerging tech, entrepreneurship, and real estate. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, VICE, EdTech Magazine, and many other publications.