Mary Ward | Co-Founder | Counter Culture Labs

Counter Culture Labs is a community of scientists, tinkerers, biotech professionals, hackers, and citizen scientists who have banded together to create an open community lab — a hackerspace for DIY biology and citizen science. Help us build a space for creative exploration and discovery: a place to innovate, learn, work on fun projects, and tinker with biology and other sciences. Help us build YOUR lab! For far too long, science has been locked away in the “ivory towers” of universities and research labs. Silicon valley was born out of garage workshops and hobby clubs, the precursor to today’s hackerspaces. And much of tomorrow’s innovation will be born out of the garage labs of today.

Me: Tell me about yourself, the team you worked with to build CCL and why did you build them?

Ward: I received a degree in biology from the University of Texas at Austin. At the University I had the opportunity to volunteer and work in research and it was from this experience that I learned that I wanted to be a scientist. I already had ideas of what I wanted to learn and what experiments I wanted to do, but there was only the traditional ways,by getting a dream job, getting into a dream academic program, or maybe slipping in as a volunteer at either of these. On a whim, I decided to move to the Bay Area from Austin, in hopes of winning over a PI at an academic lab and getting a job in the burgeoning space in the Bay. Before I moved, I saw a TED talk by Ellen Jorgenson, co-founder of Genespace, who talked about community labs.
So, when I moved to the bay 2.5 years ago I located the only community lab in California at that time, BioCurious, and went down for a visit. It was a 3 hour commute one-way, too much travel to meaningfully apply myself to a project,but eventually I met Patrik. Patrik had been running a bioprinter workshop at biocuroius for about a year and was working with several other hackers to make another community lab, but this one closer to Oakland. I volunteered to help. At that time we were about 5-8 regulars, Ryan was one of them, meeting at the hackerspace planning for the future. The crews were from biology based backgrounds, but none were bench scientists anymore.

Me: Was building the CCL community hard? Who is/was part of the community?

Ward: We continued to work. First our community formed through word of mouth, in an attempt to recruit people that would help with the logistics of finding a space, applying for non-profit status, and legal advice. But, the key to building a community has been to offer talks and classes about science and science techniques. Once we got into a permanent space, the community grew around projects like Real Vegan Cheese and The Open Insulin Project. Finding members who want to pay dues is a challenge and we are still working on how to attract new people and keep the old ones.

Me: How did you find the space and funding?
Ward: Besides member dues we have received larger donations of money and equipment from the community. We have successfully used the crowdsourcing platforms, kickstarter, indiegogo, and We used Kickstarter to raise $30,000 to help renovate the lab. Open Insulin Project and Real Vegan cheese and future projects at the lab have raised money for their supplies and to support our lab, where the bench work is done.
We have also applied for grants for education and art.

Me: What types of equipment did you find you needed and what were the challenges you encountered?
Ward: One of our members is a true mad scientist and had collected enough equipment from auctions to fill a two car garage. Other equipment we have bought or found at Bio-Link Depot, a repository for used and donated equipment for teachers and nonprofits. The biggest challenges have to do with the infrastructure and the degree of openness in the space.
First we had to find a building zoned for light industry and or business that we could
afford. We found a build and share it with 8 other groups. We have had to clean and renovate the space to bring it up to Bio Safety Standards, including adding sinks. We will always worry about having enough power to fuel all the equipment the lab uses, at the same time! Secondly our lab is more or less open to anyone, open without doors or walls. This has resulted in things moving and disappearing. And lastly, as it is with any shared space, maintaining its shared supplies and keeping the shared space clean remains a challenge. So, we have some work to do.

Me: What types of projects have you and the CCL team worked on?
Ward: Real Vegan Cheese
Bioblock Sunblock
SpaceHackathon with
The Open Insulin Project
And this is a link to projects that I am currently working on.

Me: What do you see as the future for biohacking in the California and globally?

Ward: I hear more and more about new spaces opening all over the world. The tool that revolutionized our economy was the computer. When first sold the personal computer was thought to be used mostly for personal finance, but when the tool was distributed to the user, things changed. Synthetic biology is the tool for the new economy and it is just emerging into the hobbyist sphere from the walled institutions of academia and industry. Most people see synthetic biology as a tool to solve problems, like disease and energy, but now the tools are in the hands of the users, it is impossible to say where it will go. It will lead to more innovation and niche solutions to niche problems. It will empower people to know more about the world and more about what it means to be human.