Julie Legault | Co-Founder | Amino Biolabs

Amino Labs was co-founded by designer Julie Legault, based on her thesis research at the MIT Media Lab, 2015.  After experiencing the difficulties of learning synthetic biology, bioengineering, from textbooks and online material, Julie created a mini-lab to help other people learn science by doing it.  Has a designer, Julie focussed her efforts on application-based learning. From Fragrances to pigments, the Amino One is people-driven.  

After graduation, friends and mentors from Montreal, Toronto, and Boston joined up to form an amazing, dedicated and excited team... without which Amino One would still only be a prototype! 

At its very beginning last fall 2015, the company got a kickstart by participating in MIT's E14 Fund and in SF's Indie Bio accelerator. Great Support came from an early crowdfunding campaign and great partnerships. 

How did you find the space and funding?
I found the DIYbio / biohacking space quite by (fortunate) accident, actually! I’m a designer; my background is in Design and Applied Arts - everything from jewellery, goldsmithing to set design, graphic arts, fashion and electronics. Although my work focusses on translating complex technologies for the public, I hadn't really looked into life sciences – I was mainly in the field of wearables, biometrics and smart materials.

While I was researching a new way to create hormonally-actuated scents in a wearable, I came across the banana smell program from biobuilder in a short microfluidics course I was taking. And so, when I met Natalie Kuldell of Biobuilder and the team from Synbiota, I was amazed that a non-scientist like me could hack biology and create a living thing in a few days. To top it off, you could actually make the living organisms behave in a actuator/sensor way like classic electronics. Amazing!

And so, I took a few workshops to make simple DNA programs and this really opened my eyes to what synthetic biology, bioengineering and GMOs really are—beyond what the media would like us to believe. It helped me understand the dangers and benefits for myself, without the sensationalistic / negative view the media has.   

But when I tried to replicate this experience outside of the framework of academic / workshops for my MIT thesis, I found it very very difficult : from understanding the textbooks quickly, to finding the right components, to the right equipment… even though I was in one of the best research institute! So, from a DIYbio experiences (the workshops), I had to go back to a traditional environment (MIT labs) and was really frustrated. Clearly there had to be a better way for a non-scientist to tackle this– I only wanted to create simple biobricks assemblies!

Was building the Amino community hard? Who is/was part of the community?
The Amino community is still growing -  we now have hundreds of users and it keeps growing. What amazed me is how organically the community grew. Sure, we did the classic social media/website/media coverage approach, but I am constantly amazed at how many people tell me they heard about it through a friend, or colleague. We have emails coming in from seniors wanting a headstart before starting college, little kids wanting a kit for their birthdays (apparently, its an easy birthday gift to convince your parents to get ! ) and more traditional researchers wanting to play at home, or continue research outside of the lab. 

What types of equipment did you find you needed and what were the challenges you encountered? I would say the main challenge we encountered is what we are trying to solve with the Amino One - having small, easy to use equipment that is affordable, which doesnt require you to set up entire rooms dedicated to that work! 

Fitting all the equipment we need in one space has been very challenging actually! From the standard PCRs, centrifuges, pipets to lasercutters, bandsaws, sanders, and fume hoods, we are looking at equipment in both the science world and in small scale manufacturing / prototyping for hardware. These dont necessarily cohabit well --when you think of all the dust and chemicals used in making alongside the need for "clean room" type environment for the wetware experiments. It is so ironic that in trying to make biotechnology kits that are small, self-contained and affordable, we had to fill up rooms and rooms with large, costly machines! But we did end up making a lot of our own infrastructure and getting second hand machines to stay on "budget". 

Secondly, we found that getting certain reagents was tricky in the beginning … a lot of the big biotech vendors wont sell to individuals... and that makes a lot of sense for safety reasons. Now that we are a registered business with a commercial address, it is not a problem. And with our webstore, we are going to pass on that privilege to DIYbio-ers all over!  With the Amino Ingredients Kits and Individual items, we can provide safe, reasonably sized reagents to our bio-explorers and thereby help them create without hassle! 

What types of projects have you and the Amino team worked on?
The main project we are working on is the Amino One and its ecosystem:  the Amino Ingredients Kits and the WebApp.  The Amino One is an easy and payful way to engineer grow and take care of living cells for schools or the home. The hardware platform, The Amino One, teaches you how to, and helps you bioengineer from concept to product. It is designed to be used by non-scientists and scientists alike, with multiple levels of instructions available. The hardware runs alongside the Ingredient Kits - all the reagents and chemicals needed to bioengineer. We call them Ingredients and treat them like cooking recipes; easy enough for the beginner but quite sophisticated in applications. For example, the first 2 kits we offer are the Amino Artists where your engineered cells produce a pigment of your choice which you can then use to paint or draw. The Amino Glow App is a living nightlight that sees you insert the DNA of a firefly or jellyfish into cells and nurture their growth to give you a living light source. All of the wetware is colour-coded for ease of use and the UX is a strong driver of the Amino Team. To create Amino One, and all future Aminos, we are developing our own sensors, fluidics and a lot of the wetware standards / assembly methods. 

What do you see as the future for biohacking in SF and globally?
I think, for us, the future of biohacking and technology is in the home. In the next years, non-scientist will get a taste of what can be created safely through bioengineering by using living cells as micro-factories, just like they do in the industry. At home, you can imagine using it for brewing, baking and crafts before we move on to medicine, energy and materials. This is what drives the vision of Amino - enabling this shift where bioengineering is an accessible and fun technology. I think SF will naturally adopt this vision quickly and the world will follow.