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Biohacking Mini Lab Signals a Growing Interest in DIY Biology

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Peter Bailey

Freelance Wordpress Developer in London (peabay.xyz) @peabay
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If the last time you studied biology was in school you wouldn’t be alone. For most people the prospect of doing it as a hobby wouldn’t have crossed their minds, let alone know how they might go about getting started. But in the last 10 years we’ve seen a pipette of DIY biologists emerge. They are akin to the professional programmer who fancies a side project. Instead, they are experimenting, engineering and designing with biology.

Unfortunately, biohacking isn’t as simple as putting finger to keyboard. The barrier to entry is frustratingly large. Facilities are often restricted to university students who are required to submit a request to justify their use of the lab. It’s laborious process and a bit of a faff if all you want to do is have a bit of fun.

To combat the chronic lack of public lab space and encourage ordinary people to get involved, communal biology labs were born. They opened up a world that people had never before dreamt of entering. It mirrored that of hack spaces; communal spaces for makers, and it’s their language of openness which inspired Bento Lab; the tiny lab available for all at a fraction of the price of a full-scale one.

Bento Lab is a set of lab instruments intended for DNA analysis that are enclosed in a rather snazzy laptop sized case. It’s mission –  to do to biology what Arduino did to electronics, to enable those who want to, to run their own experiments from anywhere they please and without the burden of expensive equipment.

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Five parts, which usually span an entire workbench, have been shrunken down into a neat package. The centrifuge is used to separate fluids; in this case, to extract DNA. The DNA is amplified using a device called the thermocycler. The thermocycler heats and cools at certain temperatures and frequencies. To do this accurately it requires a precision power supply and screen to aid in programming the heating profiles, as well as centrifuge timings. The amplified copies of the DNA are sorted by size with the gel electrophoresis device. From here the user observes the outcome, known as the DNA sequence.

Behind Bento Lab is molecular biologist Bethan Wolfenden and computer scientist Philipp Boeing who met while competing at a student prototyping competition run by the iGem foundation. Interested in the openness technology has enjoyed the duo set about dispelling the myth than only university students and professionals can practice biology. Bethan helped set up Biohackspace, a lab in the basement of London Hackspace – a communal area for makers. Here, among heavy machinery, dust, and industrial robotics anyone could get involved in the science.

It was after touring other bio labs around Europe and seeing their lack of activity that they realised that despite the offerings of communal labs the barrier to entry for ordinary people was still far too high. Comparing the scene to electronics, which until recently suffered similar disinterest, they realised that what was needed was the Arduino of biology. Their discovery led them to create Bento Lab, a collection of devices crudely collected into a flight case.

For the past few years Bento Lab has been a side project for them both. University grants have allowed them to develop the device without the demands of hungry investors. However in the last 6 months they have started to peddle. 20 labs have been in beta testing by a broad range of people from schools to citizen scientists. The Swiss are using it to find different yeast strains for beer, a startup in Northern England are using it for their medicine startup, teachers are using it in New Zealand, a bio hackspace in Montreal use it at their events. Those who have used it are certainly keen to own one, revealing a clear space in the market.

To purchase the devices separately would set you back about £10k to £25k. Bento Lab will cost a mere £500. At that fantastic value they should fly off the shelves, however a business model based on selling the machines themselves isn’t sustainable. £500 is the absolute lowest they can go, and it’s unlikely that customers will want to pay more. So the team are proposing a different model – refills.

There is a reason only a few have access to labs. To carry out these kinds of experiments requires reagents – chemicals, enzymes and DNA markers. But those who are able to buy them are restricted to certified bodies, those of competent authority. The Biohackspace community avoids this restriction by being one of those bodies. Their members are then able to use the reagents bought by them. Bento Lab aims to copy this model and earn revenue from selling refills, not dissimilar from how printer companies make money.

Bethan and Philips vision is a humble one. They would like to only make money if customers are using Bento Lab.

“If we use a business model where we only make money when people are using it that’s a good incentive for me” -Philipp Boeing

They intend to take Bento Lab to Kickstarter on March 22nd to help fund the production of consumer and scientist editions. It will be interesting to see if the public ‘gets it’. Biohacking is a very new idea, but is pegged to be the next ‘thing’ (after hardware of course).

Posted 21st Mar 2016
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