Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Is life science research ready for the cloud?

There is substantial buzz (and lots of VC dollars) being paid currently on healthcare IT-- with folks like Apple and Google leading the charge. While this is a terrifically interesting topic to explore, my goal in this post is to recount similar activity of "web enabled products" in the much smaller market of life science research. The biology research market often serves as a good example to highlight the idiosyncrasies of markets/technologies involving living systems compared to computer systems. Customers in life science research are usually industry insiders, in "B2B" roles such as pharmaceutical, medical, or environmental R&D. While not a perfect analog, the relative slowness of web based technology adoption in this marketplace should serve as a warning for over-optimistic investors expecting a mainstream "bio-connected" web to emerge in the next 3-5 years.

In the late 90's and throughout the early 2000's, the tidal wave of web based companies spread into the life science research field-- most notably with applications such as electronic lab notebooks, bio-informatics software platforms/services, related enterprise data management software, and generally more user friendly software interfaces (for instruments, web-ordering, protocol sharing). As is typical in specialized markets such as biology research, no blockbuster company emerged, and most of the innovations have been modestly rolled into various products offered by more traditional incumbents. 

So while innovations have not been lacking in this space, customer adoption has been stubborn, and excruciatingly slow by consumer web standards. For most of the life science research community, adoption of web tools (even something as mundane as e-commerce) substantially lags that of what one would find in their "personal lives." This is a bit puzzling, given that most customers in this space are highly educated (Ph.D. training in science or engineering), likely graduates within the last decade, spend most of their professional day thinking about advanced technology, and probably spend most of their personal free time using web apps (Amazon, Facebook, etc.). If asked why adoption of better (known) technologies has been so slow, most would likely respond "our current systems don't work that way", "corporate IT...", "we've been doing fine with pen and paper since the dawn of science, why change now?", "grad student labor is cheap." In the pessimistic view, these are strong signs that the market is entrenched, with heavy barriers for startups to break through. In the optimistic view, it's a perfect place for disruption.

One of the great things about more recent IT-based startups is the stronger emphasis on "delivering solutions" over "providing technology." Examples of this next-generation of VC funded startups hoping to push the research customer into the internet age include Benchling (an MIT founded company promoting cloud based protocol/data sharing) and Emerald Therapeutics (who've recently launched the Emerald Cloud Lab with the promise of moving typical lab bench work to a remote web-based automated laboratory). Both have developed great interfaces to substantially increase R&D productivity. Both are also early stage, and facing the chasm of "mainstream" market adoption. It is still too early to tell if the life science research community is truly ready for web/cloud enabled products, or if it will take another 10 years to build the correct foundation. Regardless, it should be very clear to the current generation of scientists that more of these types of tools are needed to overcome the complex challenges facing the healthcare/biomedical technology field.