As an activist and founder of the Bay Area’s annual Open Science Summit, Joseph Jackson posed an intriguing question on Xconomy a few years ago: “Can a generation of “DIY” biology hobbyists help kickstart a new biotech revolution the way the home brew computer club did for personal computing?”
Jackson answered his own question a year later as a co-founder of BioCurious, a “hackerspace” in Sunnyvale, CA, intended as a community biotechnology lab for inventors, entrepreneurs, and others who believe that innovation should be accessible, affordable, and open to everyone. Now Jackson has partnered with Kevin Lustig, CEO of San Diego’s Assay Depot, to establish “Bio, Tech, & Beyond,” a community biotech lab in Carlsbad, CA, about 34 miles north of downtown San Diego. It’s holding an open house Friday.
While the community lab is open to all users, including students, Lustig and Jackson say they’re encouraged by the number of professional biotech researchers (“with day jobs”) who have expressed strong interest in leasing a lab bench to carry out experiments on their own time.
Scientists who make an important discovery in their regular job typically cede the intellectual property rights to their employer, whether they’re at a university or a research institute. While a scientist could set up a garage lab at home, federal biomedical funding agencies are often reluctant to award research grants to individuals in such circumstances.
As a result, “we’re seeing a lot of latent or pent-up demand among people who are post-docs and who want to be able to work on what they want to work on,” Jackson says.
“We represent an opportunity where they can come in with their idea, and very inexpensively come up with results,” says Lustig, who adds that he has been struggling to devise a catchy name that would perfectly describe the lab’s focus on early stage biotech research.
“It’s not really an incubator; our focus is on an earlier stage than that,” Lustig says.
I make a suggestion: How about “germinator?”
Lustig says he loves it, but who knows if it will stick? (It might seem too Schwarzeneggery, like “The Hot Zone” meets “The Terminator.”)
While the term “citizen science” arose in the ‘90s, the ethos has been around for centuries, encompassing the self-funded experiments of Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, as well as contemporary efforts to crowdsource the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and protein-folding problems.
Jackson says that in more recent years, citizen science has spread its tendrils into mainstream biotechnology. Examples extend from the GenSpace community lab in New York City to LA Biohackers in downtown Los Angeles and Counter Culture Labs, a meetup group seeking to establish a biotechnology room of their own in Oakland, CA.
Jackson says he became passionate about changing the infrastructure of biotechnology while studying how file-sharing had transformed the Internet as an undergrad at Harvard. He learned there was this parallel development in biology, and has watched the DIY biology movement become a global phenomenon. To launch the BioCurious lab in Silicon Valley, Jackson and other founders raised $35,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
In an e-mail, Jackson explains that BioCurious embodied one of the first attempts to bring citizen science into a biotechnology lab. “We had to learn as we went along,” he writes. “Now that I am launching version 2.0 here [in Carlsbad], we have already made many adjustments, especially focusing more on entrepreneurship and creating revenue streams for the lab itself (almost like a mini CRO that will pick up paying gigs to help fund operations).”
In our interview, he explains, “We’re at that point where it feels like something has to change because of ‘pharmageddon’ and that whole implosion of the biotech industry. We’re trying to change the model for doing science. We’re trying to figure out the best way to enable creativity, but at the same time, you can’t have complete chaos.”
With 17 10-foot work benches, Jackson and Lustig say they have room for at least a dozen biotech startups, and perhaps as many as 15. The remaining space is for students, hobbyists, and tinkerers.
Rates for citizen scientists range from $100-$600 per month. Users paying the higher rates get a dedicated laboratory bench, equipment storage, and use of cell-culture storage space in a high-end freezer. Bio, Tech & Beyond also offers a basic rate of $10 per day.
The city of Carlsbad owns the building, which at one time was intended to be part of a new City Hall campus.
“We actually issued an RFP (request for proposals) in the summer of 2011 for an incubator that would be aligned with the business clusters in the area,” says Kathy Dodson, director of community and economic development for the city. There are more than 200 life sciences companies in the Carlsbad area, and city officials embraced Jackson’s proposal to combine citizen science with a community lab, science education center, and startup incubator.
Lustig and Jackson say they secured a five-year lease for the lab from the city for $1 per year. They have self-funded tenant improvements, doing some of the work themselves, and acquired surplus lab equipment for a fraction of its original cost.
“The equipment is not the failure point,” Lustig says. “It’s the consumables and maintaining the equipment where you can go broke paying for stuff.” They already have deals with Life Technologies for reagents and other lab supplies that are approaching their expiration date.
Can some DIY biology enthusiasts replicate what the home brew computer club did for personal computing?
If nothing else, the biotech germinator opening in Carlsbad represents an experiment in lowering the barriers to innovation. Lustig and Jackson say they’re encouraged that a new DIY biology group in San Diego already has 265 members.
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