Seeding Labs Kickstarts Science in Developing Countries

6/24/08

Late last year a fire destroyed the biochemistry department at the Southern University of Chile and dealt a severe blow to its researchers. But thanks to Seeding Labs, a non-profit based in Cambridge, MA, the labs might soon be up and running again. The organization collects discarded lab equipment, sorts and packs it, and ships it to scientific institutions in developing countries.

“We see ourselves as a kind of angel investor,” says Seeding Lab founder and executive director, geneticist Nina Dudnik. “We can give our fellow scientists in developing countries a kick-start. The equipment makes it possible to get research done, publish articles, attract international funding and in the end build a self-sustaining lab through international grants.”

Seeding Labs was started five years ago by a group of graduate science students at Harvard. Almost all of the founders had worked in developing countries.

“I had worked at an agricultural research institute in the Ivory Coast in West Africa which had a molecular biology department,” Dudnik says. “When I came to Harvard I was struck by the stark differences in resources. Here, if you need something, you can order it in the morning and it comes the next day. In West Africa we would have to wait for months. Often the only way to get reagents was to ask a colleague who was going to a conference to pick them up.”

So far, Seeding Labs has sent equipment to 20 labs in 12 countries in Latin America and in Africa. The recipients—or their co-sponsors—pay for the shipping.

During its early years, Seeding Labs got its equipment from the academic sector, mainly from Harvard. But this year the organization has also started to collect used hardware and unused supplies from the private sector.

“We got an incredible generous donation from Biogen Idec—It consisted of lab equipment and consumables sufficient to send to five labs,” Dudnik says.

The Biogen Idec donation was organized by Mahin Aratsu, at the company’s neurobiology discovery department in Cambridge. “A co-worker had seen a flyer from Seeding Labs and had brought it over,” says Aratsu. “I thought it was a perfect opportunity to clean up our labs and get rid of equipment and send it over to places that would probably use it a lot more than we did. It turned out that our immunology department did something similar after we did, and we are hoping to continue this on at least every couple of years.”

The supplies and equipment collected at Biogen Idec range from test tubes and petri dishes to centrifuges and gel electrophoresis systems. After being packed up by a group of about thirty volunteers, part of the donation is now in Seeding Labs’ warehouse, waiting to be shipped to the Southern University of Chile.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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