Google-backed service provider gives clients direct control of robot-run lab

While virtual biotechs and the service providers that support them have been around for years, Transcriptic and rival West Coast startups think they can improve the model through automation. And having raised cash from Google's ($GOOG) venture unit and struck deals with some elite academic centers, Transcriptic is now rolling out the next phase of its plan.

The latest step is the opening up of the application programming interface (API) Transcriptic uses to control its automated lab. Transcriptic has run assays and provided other services to clients--which include researchers at Harvard, Stanford, Caltech and UC Davis--from the lab since last year. Now clients have direct access to the API, allowing them to remotely take complete control of their lab research projects. Clients can either tell Transcriptic what they want and pay it to design the protocol, or design the experiment themselves using the API.

Self-designing the protocol shifts part of the workload back on to the client, but some have already welcomed the model. "These new APIs have simplified the process even more," Justin Siegel, assistant professor at the UC Davis Genome Center, said in a statement. "The building phase is a critical component to research, but can be extremely mundane, repetitive, and mindless. Using Transcriptic has fundamentally changed the way we approach research, because we can rely on them to do that leg work."

There is a long history of companies trying to automate aspects of lab research, but the need for humans to design and refine assays has remained constant. Advocates of Transcriptic's model think it can free researchers to spend more time on these tasks and other creative aspects of drug discovery. "Some of the smartest people I know spend a majority of their time on mundane tasks like manually moving around small volumes of liquid, labeling samples, culturing cells, etc. This inefficient approach is a real speed bump to innovation," Blake Byers, general partner at Google Ventures, said.

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