Contract research goes into the cloud

I recently came across an interesting West Coast Company with an exciting and disruptive Life Sciences business model. The following has been consolidated from published information on their web site plus news articles and reported interviews with the Company. 
 
Transcriptic Inc. (https://www.transcriptic.com/) is a novel ‘robotic cloud laboratory for Life Sciences’ based in Menlo Park, California. It is a unique contract research provider for biotech companies that don’t have the deep pockets of big pharma and need to produce rapid results with flexibility and precision. The Company is trying to do for biologists what Amazon Web Services does for information technology: make basic and tedious services cheap and accessible over the web. 
 
With the ability to ‘access a fully automated cell and molecular biology laboratory, all from the comfort of your web browser’, they operate at a low cost in part due to the fact that the company’s hardware team has developed approximately half of the equipment themselves. Robotic automation means that customers can repeat the same action and get the same outcome every time. The simple web interface allows the customer to control their science and generate data from virtually anywhere in the world. In addition they benefit from not needing upfront capital costs for purchase (and maintenance) of expensive equipment. 
 
Founded about 4 years ago by a young entrepreneur Max Hodak, Transcriptic is growing fast having raised $8.5million in series A funding earlier in 2015. It has now raised over $14million since launch with investors including Google Ventures. Hodak came up with the idea for the Company while carrying out basic biomedical engineering research at Duke University. He has been quoted as saying that he wanted to make it possible ‘for two postdocs with a laptop in a coffee shop to run a drug company without the need for millions of dollars in capital equipment or lab space’.
 
The Company has built labs the size of shipping containers, which they call ‘work cells’. Inside these work cells, the equipment necessary for ‘90% of lab workflows’ is available to clients. Work cells currently include PCR, liquid handling, plate reading and flow cytometry, supporting protocols covering applications such as genotyping, mutagenesis and qPCR.
 
Using a simple web interface, users piece together operations that the work cell then translates into an actual experiment using a robotic arm and programmable tools. 
 
“If you just want to outsource an assay, there are a lot of CROs that can do that,” says Hodak. “But when it becomes programmable, that opens up a lot of possibilities that aren’t available today.” Synthetic biologist Justin Siegel heads a lab at the University of California, Davis, that designs, builds and tests new enzymes. Transcriptic now does the lab's molecular biology, liberating his students from the one-third of their time that used to be spent on cloning and mutating DNA fragments.  An early commercial customer, Anvil Biosciences, commented that the price of the services is competitive, communication is really good and Anvil can now focus their energies on more important scientific questions rather than routine procedures. 
 
Time will tell about how successful this type of contract research organisation will be, but judging by the press reports and venture financing raised to date, they are well on their way.