I still think that community labs fill a void in society. With their hands-on imperative, they afford students and laypeople the opportunity to learn by working on their own projects. They give entrepreneurs and scientists the chance to try experiments they couldn’t fund elsewhere. Almost 40 percent of self-identifying DIY biologists (most of whom are unaffiliated with a conventional research institutions) work in community labs—more than any other setting, including hackerspaces, professional labs and homes—according to a forthcoming study I coauthored at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
But in the effort to do good, community lab leaders may have ignored the fact that they’re also running businesses, and the current business models, which rely on classes and membership dues for revenue, aren’t sustainable. Just as with electronics hackerspaces, lab heads work for free, but unlike hackerspaces, the equipment and supplies are expensive, and the labs require continual supervision and maintenance. “One person ends up doing most of the work, and then they get burnt out because they’re not getting paid,” says Jacob Shiach, founder of Brightwork CoResearch, a new shared lab in Houston.
Shiach, like other lab directors, is trying to revamp the business model. Brightwork, which opens in September, supplies bench space and access to rapid-prototyping equipment, but charges $350 for monthly membership—around three-times as much as typical community labs. “It’s priced so that you’re not going to become a member unless you’re serious about what you’re doing,” he says. With the additional revenue, Shiach plans to pay two part-time staff members.
At the other end of the spectrum is La Paillasse in Paris, France, which provides free lab access (although members need to apply). To cover costs, the lab has partnered with the Parisian municipality. The city has pledged to pay for two staff members and provide 1,500 square feet of free lab space in the city center. “It looks like a dream right now, but we told them [the officials in the mayor’s office] we really want to be independent in two to three years maximum,” says La Paillasse Director Thomas Landrain. Similar models proposed in the U.S. have not caught on.
Genspace has chosen a third model. It is set to recruit new directors to its executive board this month. As is the case with traditional nonprofit corporations, the board will be expected to fundraise annually.
It’s unclear which model will work. “There’s no precedent for starting these spaces, let alone restructuring them,” says Biocurious’s Director Eri Gentry. Labs will have to try out new structures to survive—which may be just as well since experimenting is the core of community labs.