Capital equipment is a massive start-up expense for a Research and Development team. Anyone who has worked in a lab, from Materials Science to Molecular Biology, knows how maddeningly expensive equipment can be. The costs are not without merit. The average piece of lab equipment undergoes hours of validation before being shipped, and some sources estimate upwards of 50% of the cost of an instrument is related to testing and R&D.
However, the majority of these assets sit unused most of the time. As a researcher at UCLA, I was the sole user of several machines, and often wondered if these assets could be harnessed in some way to generate value for the lab. Core facilities and CROs attempt to address this issue: expert technicians run a constant stream of experiments, at the request of users. But they are only available for a sub-set of techniques, like Flow Cytometry, and often interfacing with them is inconvenient.
In the next five years we may be able to address this issue. Increased automation in the lab now allows remote running of experiments. Load your samples on Friday, monitor them, make adjustments from your laptop, and receive the results via email on Monday, wherever you may be. Furthermore, using software for matching demand with underused assets and service providers, the “sharing economy,” has become huge business - we’re all aware of Uber’s mind boggling growth.
A new wave of “shared” labs, with a wide range of equipment and skilled technicians, will allow for researcher centric service provision. With maximized active time (upwards of 80%), the lab can be both profitable and reasonably priced for users. There are significant challenges to be sure, particularly quality control and upfront costs, and of course clinical drug development will still be fairly expensive.
Nonetheless, these labs, some of which are aptly called “cloud-labs,” are gaining traction. Emerald Cloud Lab, in South San Francisco, is a great example. Automation and greater asset utilization will lead to significantly reduced costs, making the Biotech industry accessible to individual entrepreneurs. We will see an explosion that rivals the latest tech boom in the coming decade: not only can you make a billion dollar app with a MacBook at your local coffee shop, you may soon be able to make a blockbuster drug.