Heather Underwood | Co-Founder | Denver Biolabs

Denver Biolabs (DBL) is a community resource for do-it-yourself (DIY) biology. Our community is a vibrant, interdisciplinary group of curious thinkers and self-motivators who want to learn, work, and play with bio-related concepts, tools, and projects. The primary goals of DBL include (1) developing and fostering a vibrant community around biotechnology through “meetups” and community events, (2) provide a physical space for this community to learn biological techniques and gain confidence and effective low-cost lab tools and techniques using DIYBio methods and resources, (4) engage the academic and entrepreneurial community of Denver, and (5) ultimately become the first community biotech lab in the Denver area for individuals seeking knowledge, resources, and space to develop their ideas and companies. 

Me: Tell me about yourself, the team you worked with to build Denver Biolabs and why did you build it? 
Underwood: I (Heather Underwood) am an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Denver and the Associate Director of a new initiative here called "Inworks" - an interdisciplinary human-centered design-focused academic program. My background is in computer science and I did my dissertation work building digital pen software platforms for midwives in Kenyan hospitals. I have always been interested in human aging and extending healthy human lifespans, and after finishing my PhD my interests turned toward the DIY-bio movement and the possibilities of synthetic biology. I met RJ Duran, DBL co-founder, in Denver and we realized that we had a bunch of common acquaintances through the DIY-bio scene in the Bay area. We both had spent time at Berkeley Biolabs, BioCurious, and Counter Culture Labs, and knew Ron Shigeta and Ryan Bethencourt. RJ and I both saw the need to find and bring together this community in Colorado, so we started Denver Biolabs. 

Me: How did you find the space and funding? 
Underwood: Denver Biolabs is fortunate enough to be hosted by Inworks at the University of Colorado Denver. DBL members use the Inworks classrooms to host guest speakers, hold meetings, etc., and has access to the small but growing biolab at Inworks. The symbiotic relationship between DBL and Inworks has allowed DBL to focus the majority of its time and energy on growing the community and starting projects, and less on finding funding and space for now. This year, DBL is going to send a team to the iGEM competition in October, and we are currently running a Generosity crowd-funding campaign to raise money to this year's competition. The community support, both monetarily and in equipment donations and time, has been really inspiring, and we recently received an anonymous donation for $2500 with a promise to match funds raised between now and the end of February. It is a really exciting time for DBL, and it definitely feels like we are on the verge of needing a bigger space outside of Inworks. This is something we are turning our attention to in 2016. 

Me: Was building the Denver Biolabs community hard? Who is/was part of the community? 
Underwood: Denver Biolabs started as a group on Meetup.com, and our membership grew pretty quickly. Our members have a wide range of ages, skill-levels, occupations, degrees, and aspirations, but a common interest in DIYBio and the opportunities of this growing field. Denver Biolabs is one of Colorado's only DIY-bio groups, which has made it pretty easy for interested people to find us and become part of our community. 

Me: What types of equipment did you find you needed and what were the challenges you encountered? 
Underwood: Our lab space in terms of equipment has grown pretty slowly. We started with three microscopes, and then ordered a home-school biology kit, which came with some basic supplies, reagents, etc. We also ordered a mini-fridge/freezer, which seemed essential early on. We have made a few pieces of equipment using open source plans - we 3D printed a "dremel-fuge" attachment and used the Inworks drillpress to spin down some blood samples, and we used a laser cutter and an Arduino board to build a centrifuge and the beginnings of an incubator. We believe in DIY for building biotools as well as doing bio. When we launched our crowdfunding campaign, we also got several responses from people who wanted to donate equipement including The ODIN, which donated a PCR machine and some of the other supplies we'll need for our iGEM project. So far, thanks to the support of Inworks and the generosity of our community, finding or making the equipment we need hasn't proved too challenging. 
Me: What types of projects have you and the Denver Biolabs team worked on? 
Underwood: We have worked on a number of projects at Denver Biolabs since we started last year. We worked on designing a real-time blood-alcohol sensor, we have experimented with molecular gastronomy, we have a group working on building a python genome sequencer, we are building biotools including a bioprinter, and now we are embarking on our iGEM project to produce oxytocin to make it more cost-effective, transportable, and accessible to clinics in the developing world.

Me: What do you see as the future for biohacking in Denver and globally? 
Underwood: I think the future for biohacking right now is pretty limitless. Currently there is just so much we don't know and the field is full of possibilities and opportunities, and I think one of the best ways to accelerate progress and discovery is to make biology accessible to a much broader audience. That's the goal of Denver Biolabs. Given how much DBL has accomplished in one year and the size of the community that has come together around DIY-bio, the future of biohacking in Denver looks very bright. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some of our members starting companies or going to work for bio startups this year. Our goal is to help with education, space, and resources as much as we can and then get out of their way! DIY-bio and biohacking are really starting to take off, and we are thrilled to be part of it. Denver Biolabs is looking forward to a very productive and collaborative year.