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.
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.