The biotech industry has historically struggled with scaling up, but SmartLabs is introducing a new standard. Or really, a standard.
In this interview with FierceBiotech publisher Rebecca Willumson, Amrit Chaudhuri, CEO and co-founder of SmartLabs, details the biggest challenge facing labs: infrastructure.
Not that it’s a lack of infrastructure, but rather, varying infrastructures. And that variance means that development is hard to scale. According to Chaudhuri, “To go from a one-modality industry to two took 30 years to adapt for this industry,” and that long adaption time often means great scientific discoveries stay secret for too long.
Those challenges exist for a reason, but SmartLabs is changing that. Listen to the interview, or read the transcript below to learn more.
Rebecca Willumson: Hi there. I'm Rebecca Willumson. I'm the publisher of FierceBiotech and I'm here today with Amrit Chaudhuri, CEO and co-founder of SmartLabs. Amrit, thanks so much for joining me.
Amrit Chaudhuri: Thanks so much for having me.
Rebecca Willumson: So before we begin, can you start by telling us a little bit about your role and what you do at SmartLabs?
Amrit Chaudhuri: Sure. I'm one of the co-founders and CEO. I and my co-founders started the company about eight years ago, and I spent the last 15 years in mostly drug development in the biopharma industry. I'm a synthetic protein chemist and a bioengineer by background, and so I've had a really, really crazy career, honestly. I've run three companies and it was a privilege because it was all in different parts of the sector. Chemistry based drug development, bioinformatics, and now scaled infrastructure.
Rebecca Willumson: Very good. So tell me a little bit about SmartLabs. What's your mission?
Amrit Chaudhuri: We are an organization that believes that the infrastructure, resourcing and operations of this industry need to be modernized. Today we think that how labs are developed, how service programs around science are built, how we have a lack of digitization of operations and data and coordination and automation of process, we think it's actually holding science back, and so we are effectively doing two things. We're modernizing what a lab is. We think we've built the most advanced lab in the world, capable of doing a range of things that other labs can't do, and then we figure out how to democratize access to that. How do you create the ability of on-demand accessing that full gamut of pharmaceutical resources for every type of modality and every stage of that science going commercial?
Rebecca Willumson: So why did you start this company?
Amrit Chaudhuri: My co-founders and I were working in the industry. I was working in drug development at a small research organization that did peptide based research across multiple indications with pharma companies and universities and startups in the early 2010s, and my co-founder, Seth, was actually working on growth strategies at Fortune 200 pharma with CEOs and boards around market landscape, future technologies, bolt-on M&A for growth if those direction was adopted by the board.
He and I met through common friends, and when we were talking we were both commenting on this anxiety that we saw in the industry, and it turns out... and we kept talking about this in the beginning of 2014 because it was really bothering us. I was seeing a shift in the way that organizations were outsourcing research and partnering on research. He was seeing a shift in the focus areas, and from a strategic perspective that organizations were pursuing, and we realized that a large amount of change was about to happen in the biopharma industry.
The industry up until the '80s was a single modality industry, small marker chemistry, and the advent of biotech and the development of biopharma was this idea that all of a sudden biologics can be used, enzymes, proteins, antibodies, to develop drugs, and startups, Amgen, Genentech, Biogen, Genzyme, came and developed those things and eventually everyone had to adopt it. Once you proved that that technology was valuable, everyone had to change their plans, change their infrastructure, change their resourcing, change their talent, change their geographies to access that methodology.
In 2014, we realized we were at the beginning of an inflection point of 10x that change, and so going from a two-modality industry to a 15 to 20-modality industry in the next 15 years, and to go from a one-modality industry to two took 30 years to adapt for this industry, so I think people were correctly anxious that they didn't really know how to go about that process, but they knew they had to do it.
Rebecca Willumson: Sure, sure. Talk to me about the critical transition the industry's going through. What do you think is driving it?
Amrit Chaudhuri: We're a regulated industry and we have a really well developed process for how we develop small molecule and biologics based drugs. We don't really know, even with commercial products like CAR T and certain gene editing programs that are out there that are already commercialized, we don't really know how to at scale do that, right? Do it through high throughput so we can go after a hundred indications. We don't know how to make it. We don't know how to distribute it. We don't know if we have to do this in a scale-out manufacturing model where the manufacturing is localized city by city, region by region, or if there will be a way, just like how we, in the pandemic, addressed the cold chain storage of mRNA.
Before the pandemic, one of the biggest hurdles to mRNA being used was how are we going to do this ultra cold chain storage? It wasn't a large enough issue that the entire world was working on to go and solve, and then now that it's being approached we can suddenly invest, and we've seen a much, much larger investment in mRNA based technologies, and so that's happening in 15 different areas where we don't know how to make it, we don't know how much it's worth, we don't know how many drugs we're going to have or where to focus.
Rebecca Willumson: So what does SmartLabs think is the actual problem?
Amrit Chaudhuri: If each of those modalities, each of those therapeutic areas, require a different type of infrastructure, right, labs are different, right? The chemistry lab that you're using for mRNA synthesis is different than a cell culture lab is different than the [inaudible 00:06:19] who is doing preclinical work. It turns out this industry has to invest heavily in bespoke static infrastructure that it's just creating a very, very large inventory of.
A pharma company will have thousands of different labs and different geographies that many are underused and many don't have the capacities for the actual critical programs today, and the process in which they plan and develop future resources takes about five or six years to do, so if you suddenly discovered something great or you bought a company that was in cell therapies, it would take you four or five years to develop the resources to really invest and scale that technology to develop more drugs on that technology.
We found that the static nature and the single purpose nature of the infrastructure is actually one of the biggest challenges that's unique to this industry, that you don't see in data centers, that you don't see in aviation, that you don't see in transport. It's a really complex and extremely expensive challenge.
Rebecca Willumson: So you've described a number of core challenges. What are you trying to solve and how?
Amrit Chaudhuri: We are trying to standardize what a lab is, and it turns out that there's so many different organizations involved in the design, development, requirement setting and execution of building a lab, and then separately the way all of those functions from inventory management, hazardous waste, environmental training, all of that is done so fragmented at all organizations that there is no standards. There are no ubiquitous ways of digital software. There's no way of monitoring things the same way. There are no control systems that we see in other industries, full frameworks developed, full platforms developed, and so we are trying to develop the first real platform that allows for interchangeable science and so we've now invented a way to build a building that allows us to put any type of lab at any scale inside of there in two to four weeks, instead of the industry average of about two to four years.
Rebecca Willumson: So that is quite a lot of ground to cover as an organization. So how far along are you in accomplishing this?
Amrit Chaudhuri: We've actually already accomplished it. We have been doing this for about eight years, and we invented the first version of this, we call V1, in 2018, and we are on V8 today, on just the infrastructure side. We actually, on the digital platform side, we've actually wrapped it up completely with a digital operating platform that you think of as Epic for hospitals or Salesforce for sales and marketing. We did that for science, and so now we have a completely different building to work out of, a completely different digital platform to then operate that building, and we have, I think, hundreds of companies, thousands of workflows, and thousands of experiments and scientists working off our platform today.
Rebecca Willumson: That's fantastic.
Amrit Chaudhuri: Yeah.
Rebecca Willumson: Well, that feels like a great place to wrap up. Thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate the conversation.
Amrit Chaudhuri: Thanks for having me again.