BioFoundry is Australia's first community lab for citizen scientists. Our mission is to democratise science by breaking cost entry barrier to science education and research.
Me: Tell me about yourself, the team you worked with to build Foundry.Bio and why did you build them?
Meow-Meow: The first thing people recognise about me is my extroverted and enthusiastic personality and love for science, technology and the future. I studied genetics at university but took a really long time to complete my degree, I kept finding fascinating tangents and taking time off to complete them. Ultimately, this gave me a really well rounded education and also showed me an insight into the realities of both the academic and private sectors. After working for a short time at a mycology lab during my degree, I realised I did not want to be a lab tech. I stumbled upon OpenPCR and then tried to find others that were biohacking in Australia. There weren’t any active groups. I decided then that I was going to start the first active Australian chapter.
TEAM: The executives on the BioFoundry board are Adrian, Maria, and myself. On top of the core exec team there are a ton of volunteers.
Me: How did you find the space and funding?
Meow-Meow: FIRST SPACE The Sydney government runs a service that aims to pair ‘creative types’ with low cost studios. The cost of rent in Sydney is comparable to San Francisco, and this was pretty daunting when we did not have an income stream. We found a space that met some of our needs, but we knew it was not perfect. We decided to take it for the time being, and then a few months later found a much more suitable space that is a 25m^2 spot that used to be a carpark. This space was a lot easier to get up to PC1 standard (roughly BL1). We are in the process of becoming certified currently.
Me: Was building the Foundry.Bio community hard? Who is/was part of the community?
Meow-Meow: MEETINGS Our first meeting had around 50 people, which was much larger than we expected. We continued to meet monthly and membership shrunk over time to about 15 people. Meetings were so much fun that we decided to have them fortnightly, and found a permanent location at a meeting room at ATP innovations. This is where the core team really bonded and we were able to crystallise our vision for what our lab would eventually look like. After heaps of trial and error we found a winning formula for meetings was 23 speakers giving short, 20 minute presentations followed by 10 mins of questions. Then close the meeting and head to the pub for informal conversation. This allows for strong bonds to be formed between previously disconnected parts of the community.
KEY PLAYERS The community in Sydney has a solid core, and an extensive dynamic group that supports us. The people that have been around the longest are Mat (microbiologist, electronics hacker, general allrounder), Dr Nicky (Cell Biology, secretary, safety), Adrian (Project Manager), and myself. Since the conception of our lab though we have had scores of people stepping up to help out and build. Recently we have had people involved in metalwork, artists, writers, and all sorts of others coming in to use the space. We also have some people recently that are using the space to prototype products that are intended to have a commercial application.
Me: What types of equipment did you find you needed and what were the challenges you encountered?
Meow-Meow: GAINING EQUIPMENT- During the early days of our meetings, the majority of the members were at university.When we told staff and academics about what we were doing, we found a mixture of opposition and support. By aligning ourselves with the supporters we were able to rapidly get more equipment than we could store. Some of it was broken, all of it was old, but eventually we managed to get a worldclass functioning lab.
After we got some media attention we suddenly found ourselves getting calls from other labs and businesses that wanted to donate equipment. We hope that our excess equipment will now flow into other labs in Australia as they form. BUILDING EQUIPMENT- I really prefer people to build their own equipment.There are large numbers of resources online that facilitate this, and the person building it can learn how the machine works from first principles. This allows MacGyverlike abilities when conducting experiments. It also gives you an appreciation for the quality and cost of commercial equipment, for better or worse. Having protean abilities is a hugely desirable trait and should be the end goal of hackers, and will really impress the people you work with. CHALLENGES GOVERMENT- Australia has quite strict regulations surrounding gene technology. From our third meeting we had already made government contact and this has been a constant and high level consideration for us. Across the years we have formed a close relationship with the regulatory body and advise them of all relevant concerns. We have been working openly with them to construct a well regulated, safe, and professional DIYBio scene here. The caveat to this is that we have to set the bar very high, and this is very time consuming. There is quite a lot of bureaucracy involved and a large administrative burden, which can be really hard to maintain with a group of volunteers. We feel overall that it is in our best interest to do so, by improving safety of members, increasing public support, and giving the movement credibility.
UNI- We have had both positive and negative reactions from the univerisities. The worst reaction we have had was an academic threating to send bioterrorism police to my house, and a dean telling us we were reckless and could potentially destroy science in Australia. We found the best way around this was to refer them to the government body that regulates us, and advise them that everything we are doing is legal and subject to the same regulations as any other lab in Australia.
FUNDING- We incorporated as a notforprofit in November 2014. Our lawyer, Nathan Papson, advised that we would most likely be eligible for charity status, and with his help we obtained it under the category of ‘education’. This gives us significant tax benefits, but it is still a bit tricky to get the costs of the space covered. A decision was made early on to only take projects on a casebycase basis until we receive government certification to ensure all projects are legal. Because of this funding has been hard to obtain. Ideally we would love a government grant, but in Australia most grants are “matched”; basically they will only give you money if you already have it. If I could go back in time I would start crowdfunding and raising money long before we opened through things like fundraisers and selling kits.
Me: What types of projects have you and the Foundry.Bio team worked on?
Meow-Meow: LAMP DIAGNOSTICS- We entered a 10 person team into Australia’s biggest hackathon, Hackagong. Our goal was to create a microfluidic qPCR that is quick to assemble and cheap to make. When you tell the average person what a qPCR is their eyes glaze over pretty quickly. The best way to overcome this technological barrier is to give the device a specific use, in this case we branded it as an athome sexually transmitted disease screening test.
We developed a working (as far as we can tell) prototype. After a short break across 2015/2016 new year, we are gathering the team to get this product to a stage that it is ready for commercial sale. Since the competition we have obtained all relevant reagents and are ready to tidy up the fluidics and electronics. This was a great project because of the diversity of the skill sets required to complete it. It required marketing, electronics, biology, data processing, and ability to interrogate journals. It really allowed everyone in the team to play to their strengths and I advise anyone going into a competition like this to try and pick a project that has similar attributes.
VEGAN MEAT- We have recently partnered with a plantbased burger restaurant to start work on a lab grown meat project. The project would be incredibly difficult and expensive to complete, so we have decided to focus on creating products that are involved in cell culture that are expensive, but should be able to be created for much cheaper and then bootstrap from there. This project is rapidly advancing, and we should be able to make a big impact with the products being produced.
ANTI MOULD PAINT- A corporate sponsor has requested that we collaborate on an antimould paint. We are trying to use products from nature to create this. The equipment is open source and the product itself uses products from fungi. The end goal is to reduce the toxicity in these paints, and hopefully allow them to be cheap enough to be used in the tropics during natural disasters in emergency accommodation.
MUSHROOMS- We regularly run courses in our lab teaching mushroom propagation. Although not technically difficult, it does require meticulous aseptic technique, and is helped greatly by access to a laminar flow hood. Courses are a fantastic way to engage the community and enable skills sharing. They can also be a great revenue stream.
Me: What do you see as the future for biohacking in the Australia and globally?
Meow-Meow: AUSTRALIA- We have had a huge acceleration in biohacking in Australia. It took us over 3 years to get our first lab started, and then a couple of months afterwards BioQuisitive popped up, and now groups are forming in Brisbane and Perth. Ideally I would love to see large scale biohacking facilities in every capital city, with satellite and mobile spaces serving the rural parts of the country. Biohack spaces are truly disruptive. They allow a bridge between university research and startups by allowing prototyping and developing. In this way I see them as essential to the nation’s new innovation plan. They allow a space for people to really get a product ready for incubation and sort out all the kinks without having to worry too heavily about IP or lacking a certain skillset (as other hackers can often help).We are becoming more heavily connected with our neighbours in the AsiaPacific region. I can’t wait for regional summits where we can all meet and work with people from this culturally and linguistically diverse region of the planet. I would love for the biohacker spaces to integrate themselves into the community and act in a similar fashion to a local library or workshop, with people using the space regularly to ask questions, sequence, and build things.
GLOBALLY- Biohacking is huge. I think this movement will have a profound impact on the course of humanity. I seriously believe that this will be as big as the computer revolution of the mid-80’s but with far more profound implications as things like CRISPR and augmentation become more accepted and commonplace. IN the short term, I expect a serious disruption in the way that biotechnologies are created and viewed, as we see a shift in innovation being carried out in the lab funded by government grants, to crowdfunded products being manufactured in response to consumer demand in biohackerspaces or garages.
In the mid term, I see a huge proliferation of these spaces globally and large scale interactions and collaborations. There will be a shift towards international projects that will combine biohacking and academic forces to approach big problems and goals. The big ones that will be tackled will include climate change, poverty, hunger, and medical diseases, and also a huge push towards create things to allow our expansion into space. In the long term, I see biohacking as being as common as brushing your teeth. We would have intimate control over our microflora and genetic states. Biohacking will become personal the way that our computer and phone networks are. Much like your phone is an extension of yourself, I see biohacking going in a parallel direction to computing. I think th an end to aall disease and natural death will be helped in huge part by biohackers and I don’t see those goals as unrealistic in the next 100 years.