What if you could operate your lab 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and increase productivity by 300 percent or more?
The Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL) is bringing this capability to scientists across the globe. ECL is the only remotely-operated research facility that can handle all aspects of daily lab work, from experiment design to data acquisition and analysis.
In a world where remote work has become the norm for many industries, scientific research has been the exception. ECL has discovered how to overcome these unique barriers to make the flexibility of remote work a reality for laboratories.
How does it work?
Scientists who are interested in utilizing ECL’s services set up an account and ship their samples to the ECL facility. Using the ECL point-and-click interface known as the Command Center, users then design their experiments. ECL staff conduct the experiments in the highly-automated facility to the precise specifications the users outlined. Users can track the status of experiments remotely at any time. The data is organized in the platform ECL Constellation, and grows automatically as the user conducts more experiments. Beyond designing the experiments, the ECL Command Center offers a suite of tools to plot, analyze, and visualize specific results. Multiple experiments from one user can run simultaneously, without the user ever stepping foot inside the ECL facility.
“We’re particularly proud of the dramatic leverage that ECL gives scientists. It really reframes their job around doing the science, and less around the logistics of science,” says Toby Blackburn, head of business development and strategy at ECL.
Scientists from pharma and biotech to startups and academia use the ECL system to perform daily lab work.
What makes the ECL innovative is the solutions it offers to a lab’s most significant challenges. “When access to 200 separate categories of equipment costs less than buying one piece of gear, researchers are no longer constrained by budgets or by the limitations of the organizations that they work for, no matter where in the world they may be working,” says Blackburn.
Improving productivity and efficiency
But some may wonder, “What happens if something goes wrong? If I’m not in the lab, I can’t resolve issues or have full control over my experiments.”
ECL demonstrates how scientists don’t need to be physically present to still have ownership over their work. “With ECL, every aspect of every experiment is recorded, offering a level of control and the ability to interrogate an experiment previously unavailable,” says Blackburn. As he explains, in a traditional lab environment, getting issues or questions resolved involves finding the scientists who ran the experiment, obtaining additional information not written in the experiment notes, and pulling data from various sources and files. However, with ECL, all information is easily retrievable through a simple search function. “It eliminates the need to distract researchers from their ongoing work, improves reproducibility of experiments, and speeds up investigations into aberrant results,” adds Blackburn. “That means experimental findings are consistent regardless of which researcher ran the experiment or where they are located.”
According to Blackburn, ECL users have seen 5x-8x improvements in individual scientist productivity, in large part to ECL reducing the logistical tasks scientists have to deal with in a traditional lab setting.
“The most impressive thing we hear from people is that they finally realize this is what it means to really programmatically execute experiments. They have the power of a tool that can automate aspects of their job previously impossible, and work on higher-order problems,” explains Blackburn.
How do you operate a highly-automated cloud lab?
The ECL offers access to 200 different kinds of high-throughput scientific instruments for a monthly fee that costs less than a single piece of lab gear. The enormous number of experiments, inventory items, samples, and resources, combined with the facility’s nonstop operations, unsurprisingly present challenges for ECL management staff. But the automated cloud system provides the ECL staff the same benefits it provides customers. “[The system] is constantly checking itself for errors in either the code or in the execution of any given experiment, as well as the calibration or validations of any instrument,” explains Blackburn. “There are a million pieces of source data to look at, and the system helps us interrogate the ones that are important at any given time.”
Perhaps a more complex challenge for ECL leadership is educating the industry on what a cloud lab offers. “A true cloud lab offers a complete set of tools. There's a continual push and pull in what the clients need to execute their particular flavor of any given experiment,” says Blackburn. “We are continually expanding our capabilities, and containing all of those capabilities in a general-purpose tool is the challenge of being a true cloud lab.”
Opening up science
ECL co-founders Brian Frezza and DJ Kleinbaum learned many lessons along the way in creating the world’s first remotely-operated lab. Now they are sharing those lessons in a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to build the world’s first cloud lab in an academic setting. The CMU Cloud Lab will incorporate the ECL software architecture, and Frezza and Kleinbaum—both CMU alumni—will consult on the facility’s design, equipment installation, and lab management and operations. The $40 million project is on track to be completed by this summer, and training has already begun for faculty and staff who are eager to use the lab when it opens. Once completed, the CMU Cloud Lab could run more than 100 experiments simultaneously, 24 hours a day, every day.
“With ECL, every aspect of every experiment is recorded, offering a level of control and the ability to interrogate an experiment previously unavailable.”
“The CMU Cloud Lab will democratize science for researchers and students,” says Rebecca W. Doerge, the Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science at Carnegie Mellon, in a press release announcing the collaboration.
Initially, the CMU Cloud Lab will be reserved for CMU researchers and students, with the goal to eventually expand access to high school students, local life sciences startup companies, and others.
The services provided by ECL are opening up new possibilities for researchers. Freeing scientists’ time from the more mundane tasks of lab work allows for brainstorming, new collaborations, and increased motivation—all of which contribute to the next big innovative idea.