Facing a Crisis: Struggling to meet its financial obligations, Biocurious, the largest of the nascent community biotechnology labs and first to be crowdfunded, may become the first to close. Image: Biocurious
In mid-August, the head of Biocurious, one of country’s premier community biotechnology labs, very publicly quit her post. “I’m seeing lots of political maneuvering and divisive finger pointing at a time when we should be banding together to turn things around,” Kristina Hathaway wrote in a resignation letter on the lab’s message board. “It’s sad, and it’s shameful.”
The first community labs opened three years ago and became embodiments of the nascent Do-It-Yourself Biology community, a grassroots movement of enthusiasts seeking to popularize biotechnology just as programmers working from their garages popularized computing in the 1970s. Do-It-Yourself practitioners who were working in garages, closets and other makeshift spaces began to coalesce around these shared labs. Some 14 community labs now exist globally, providing benches and equipment for people with a range of experience to work on any biotech project—once it is deemed safe. Such labs have become a source of provocative bio-artwork and DIY equipment, along with a wellspring of biotech outreach and education.
Biocurious, which opened in 2011, is the largest of these community labs, and has a list of firsts to its name: the first community biotech lab to crowdfund its startup costs, the first to build a bioprinter, the first to sprout a company that Kickstarted almost half a million dollars. Now, Biocurious may become the first to close. The lab is struggling to meet its meager monthly expenses of roughly $6,000 to $8,000. “Over the history of Biocurious, we lose money every month,” Hathaway says.
For the past eight months, lab members have been battling over how to pull Biocurious out of financial jeopardy, while the four founders have seemed to wrestle each other for control. With just a few months of rent left in the coffers and no resolution to the conflict of personalities, Biocurious faces a crisis. “Is this the break up of the Beatles? I don’t know,” Hathaway says.
Troubles like these are somewhat endemic in community labs across the world. Even BUGSS, a community biotech lab in Baltimore that is less than a year old, is anticipating difficulties. “I think that we will face the same problems that Biocurious has,” says BUGSS Director Tom Burkett. “All volunteer projects work when you’re starting out, especially when there’s a lot of enthusiasm, but running these things is a marathon, not a sprint.”
The term “community lab” emerged out of conversations on my couch in Brooklyn five years ago. The founders of Genspace, the first community lab to launch in 2010, wanted to do more sophisticated biotechnology projects than we could comfortably do on my kitchen counter. Taking our cue from electronics hackerspaces that pool resources and expertise, we imagined a dedicated space where students could take biotech courses in the classroom, while biohackers could innovate in the lab.
We had no business plan. No money. We didn’t even know if people would show up. I suspect other labs share the same sort of origin. Three years on, it’s time for the community labs to imitate biology we study, and evolve.