Luc Henry | Co-Founder | Hackuarium

Hackuarium want to bring biology (and biologists) to the world, and the real world back to biology. Their laboratory is an excuse to meet and discuss, build and develop ideas in a neutral, open, noncompetitive and not-for-profit environment. 

Their laboratory in Renens (Switzerland) is open to anyone sharing the values of the association and who is dedicated to follow the DIYbio Europe ethical guidelines.

Their projects are initiated and carried out by scientists as well as non-scientists from a variety of background. They are passionate about tinkering with biology in particular, and technology in general. Some are engineers, architects, designers, IT and computer scientists or retired professionals, but others have no scientific education. They are mostly citizens interested in open and participatory research and innovation, outside the contrains of traditional institutions.

Hackuarium members want to investigate new ways of carrying out interdisciplinary research and innovation, by making their results accessible (low-cost), simple and easily reproducible (low-tech) and by promoting an open source philosophy.

Hackuarium is proudly using infrastructures provided by UniverCité, an unconventional innovation hub opened in May 2014. Their equipment is mostly upcycled material from institutions and industries from western Switzerland.

Very interesting right? Let's learn more about them as we share our interview with Luc Henry, the co-founder of Hackuarium. 

Tell me about yourself, the team you worked with to build Hackuarium and why did you build it?

My name is Luc Henry, I was born in Switzerland and am a chemist by training. Until I left my last university position to focus on science communication and policy issues two years ago, my research was focused on molecular aspects of biology.

I spent several years living in different European countries, and when I finally came back to Switzerland in 2014 and was really interested in launching a DIYbio initiative. I spent six months talking to everybody involved in remotely related activities around Lausanne and built a network of people interested in the idea, but soon realised that there was nothing similar to what I had in mind. So I started to spread the word that I would be starting something new.  I co-founded Hackuarium (www.hackuarium.ch) with Yann Heurtaux, who has no science background but a real commitment for the promotion of coworking and antidisciplinary spaces. He had experience with community building and we formed the perfect pair to start a community lab. Very soon, others joined us, scientists, designers, architects, engineers, and we started to realise that, although biology was still going to be the main focus, we had to broaden our interests to other sciences and technologies to make it more interesting.

The reasons why I wanted to support an initiative like Hackuarium are diverse. I first started to think about alternative ways of doing research in biology about ten years ago, just after I finished my Master studies in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was working as a research assistant in a cell biology lab I was stunned by the way researchers would rely on commercial kits and reagents when you could (as a chemist at least) easily imagine how to prepare them yourself. Also, it seems that the accepted and that meant that the most important ingredient for success was the vast amounts of funding available. But I was really not convinced myself. I was thinking of founding an institute for low-cost science and test the hypothesis that good science could be done with limited resources, but then I moved to Oxford and got carried away with my DPhil (PhD) project. When I first met the DIYbio European community years later, it seemed that they were on the right track. Also, I got familiar with the Open Source and Open Data movements at approximately the same time and thought that Open Biology had a real potential. So I brought all this back home with me.

How did you find the space and funding?

Pretty early in the thought process, we gave interviews to local press about the concept and the reasons why we wanted to launch a grassroots initiative. At this point, some genuinely interested people contacted us. Some were researchers who liked the novelty of the approach and wanted to join, some were industry people curious about our goals and motivations, and some were from organization whose role is to promote research and innovation in the region. Inartis for example is a private not-for-profit foundation who was already interested in building an unconventional innovation space near Lausanne, and our initiative was aligned with their vision. They had a deal with the local municipality for renting a space. So when UniverCité (http://univercite.ch) opened in the Spring 2014, Hackuarium became the first community to benefit from these infrastructures. Today UniverCité also host a coworking space, a fully equipped makerspace, and a couple of small companies, and it is meant to grow bigger and more exciting. As a community, Hackuarium is looking into funding and business models to sustain the space, but the DIYbio activities are just one part of the whole.

Was building the Hackuarium community hard? Who is/was part of the community?

Building a community is always hard. But I would particularly recommend to start with a community and then look for infrastructures. At Hackuarium, we had the mixed blessing of finding the space first, and then slowly build a community. The users should dictate what the space looks like and the type of projects that are possible, not the other way around. Starting with a fully equipped lab is the best way to make the users think they are limited by its infrastructures. Curiosity works best when everything is possible. As a biologist interested in meeting people with a different background, I started by trying to convince people from the arts to join. Out of ten people, we have now 4 biologists, 3 engineers, 1 artist and 2 people who do not fit in these categories. I would like to see more diversity, and more gender equality, but the 40 members we have now is a good base to grow.

What types of equipment did you find you needed and what were the challenges you encountered?

From the start, we knew that access to equipment was not going to be a problem. We have the luxury of living in a country where biotechnology play an important role in the research and industry, and institutions, both private and public, regularly upgrade their equipment. People willing to donate their used instruments, and even consumables, quickly contacted us. In a sense, it is comfortable, and at the same time it can be a great disadvantage. Scarcity makes DIYbio interesting and I am struggling to find a way to control the resources so that we do not lose sight of our objectives: to try to make research more accessible, simpler and cheaper.

What types of projects have you and the Hackuarium team worked on?

First, I would not use the word “team” but rather “community”. Hackuarium is a not-for-profit association and a group of people sharing a curiosity for (bio)sciences, technologies, and looking for an opportunity to share with others. But the personal motivations and goals can be very diverse. My personal project was to create a lab and, more generally, an environment where everyone can come and experiment, test, prototype and have a conversation with the other members of a community of like-minded people. The projects are dependent on members’ interests. Some are creative projects, in music, design, architecture, some are technological, in electronics, robotics, some are scientific, in genomics, health, etc. We try to give an overview on our website (www.hackuarium.ch) and do our best to document everything we do on our wiki (wiki.hackuarium.ch).

What do you see as the future for biohacking in Switzerland and globally?

Using the word ‘biohacking’ can be misleading here. Of course we like to think that we are biohackers, but biohacking can also be done in an academic environment. As far as Hackuarium is concerned, we focus on the ‘DIY biology’ (or Do It Together biology) part of the biohacking movement. Regarding the future, I unfortunately do not have a crystal ball. For me, all of this is an experiment. I am and will always be a scientist, and biohacking is a very interesting hypothesis to study. What if you ignore the rules of traditional research environments, give access to a lab to people with no formal science training, teach them the basics and help them work on problems that they’re interested in and see what happens? I think biohacking and DIYbio have existed for as long as biotechnology did, and are here to stay. It has recently become very interesting because ‘traditional’ scientists have started to see the value of the community approach. My main conclusion from the past two years is that DIYbio should not try to imitate what is done in industrial or academic labs. There is a lot of potential in exploring a niche that neither of these cover. The boundaries of that niche are still not very well defined and may never be, but giving access to a laboratory to people who would normally not have a chance is already yielding some pretty interesting projects. Interesting results will follow I am sure. We only need to keep the momentum and be patient. Science never happens overnight.