Remote working: when the cloud meets the lab 

Toby Blackburn runs business development and strategy at Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL). His main responsibility is to help clients, and the industry, understand the technology, how it can benefit them, and what the future lab looks like. He shares these insights with DDW’s Megan Thomas in the exclusive DDW & SLAS2022 supplement ahead of SLAS2022 in Boston, US on 5-9 February. 

Discussing his role and what excites him about it, Blackburn reveals: “I get to take ECL, the result of years of work by a talented and accomplished team and share it with companies and academic institutions and see its impact on their work today. The best part really comes from working with our clients and seeing what they can accomplish once they have access to ECL. The lab enables their experiments to be undertaken in a matter of hours, no matter where the scientist may be based, through a programmable software interface.” 

The pandemic  

On the pandemic and its effects, Blackburn says: “As a business, we have always been nimble and focused on innovation, which I think reflects the values of our two co-founders and the incredible team of scientists, computer engineers and operations staff they’ve put together. Our team was able to quickly start up an internal PCR Covid-19 assay to allow more frequent environmental monitoring of the lab and developed additional protocols to minimise risk and keep our staff safe. Supply chain difficulties with both instrumentation and consumables have been our biggest challenge.” 

He continues: “The pandemic was really a ‘black swan’ event, even for much of the pharmaceutical industry. It was an unpredictable circumstance that created repercussions across the industry. Many companies are now starting to realise that they need better risk mitigation strategies around core assets, like their R&D teams. Removing the need for researchers to be present in the laboratory by using a cloud lab minimises this risk, but it is clear that automation in general will have a large role to play in this effort. 

“On the plus side, the pandemic has pushed companies to solve some of the fundamental challenges with scaling laboratory science and dealing with the associated data. It will become increasingly challenging to balance resources directed at getting work ‘back to normal’ with investing in the technologies and cultural shifts required to be ready for future risks that may impact R&D and make research more efficient in general.” 

Speed, efficiency and cost: what is the lab’s role? 

Blackburn says: “Many large firms have already made sizeable investments in streamlining their R&D organisations, but much of that spend has been focused on the clinical trial side and operational overhead, not in reworking how science is actually conducted. The next big leap in efficiency will come from advancing laboratory execution and data analysis/management.  

“Previous approaches to address challenges in execution and data analysis have largely been unsuccessful because they were treated as two separate workstreams. In reality, the data and the generation of data are interconnected. The design space for useful products has to include both the lab and the interface scientists use to manage, analyse, interpret, and report data,” states Blackburn. 

Volume 23, Issue 1 – Winter 2021/22 

Biography 

Toby Blackburn serves as the head of BD and Strategy at Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL), a web-based platform for remotely conducting and managing data surrounding wet lab experiments. He holds an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from North Carolina State University. 

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