How did Bento Lab Start?
We had done a couple of projects in Biotchnology/Biosciences at UCL and then were looking at collaborations with groups outside of the university, in particular the London Hackspace. There was a group there that wanted to do amateur science called DIY Bio, they wanted to do biosciences as a hobby.
We met them and did a project together because they didn’t really have the tools or the skills. So we came together to do a project, to investigate how long it would take and what it would require for a group of people to do an interesting DNA or genetic engineering project. And that was our first introduction into Biosciences outside institutional boundaries.
Since then, we spent a year touring the European community of DIY Bio, we noticed there were a lot of people who wanted to get involved in that. A lot of people were excited but also frustrated at how hard it is to get into.
So we realised what was missing in this community was the infrastructure that we take for granted in fields like computing and electronics. We wanted to see some progress on that front, so that’s where Bento Lab came from – that need.
What’s the kind of knowledge required for Bento Lab?
I think we are trying to design it for someone who is a total amateur. We have a starter kit where you go from the very beginning of what materials you will need and how those techniques will work through to- (for example) lets take some of your salvia and analyse your own DNA to test for your tastebud receptors or what blood group you have. I guess we are designing the process to take a couple of days but, I think we really want to break that barrier down so that anyone could do it.
Its very much a project from the spirit of the maker community, if you know what you’re doing and you have a degree in Biosciences; we wanted it to feel like it wasn’t a toy laboratory, its more of a laptop laboratory where you can do actual laboratory work.
On the other hand, we met all these users who have heard about genetics and want to do that as a hobby. So what we are trying to do for these people is build that ten step Arduino product, from beginning to pro. We aren’t trying to target someone who is just interested in one experiment or one result. We really want to focus on the user experience of getting your hands dirty and learning about a process and becoming bi-literate or a maker within biology.
I think that’s the person we are targeting.
How long did it take to formalise the prototyping?
I think we could have done it faster but it’s a good thing we didn’t. We started this project in 2013, we were students at the time and had known the community for a while. We worked within the maker space of UCL to build some prototypes with friends of ours and it was a side project for a long time.
We did some competitions and made a new prototype every half a year or so, if we’d been a startup from the very beginning it would have probably been faster. We had almost 2 years of refining the product whilst looking at what people really want. I think that’s something that startups can get wrong- they don’t do enough research.
We spoke to a few hundred people over a few days with an empty box and some labels- like a model. We spoke to a lot of people about just the idea of it and got a lot of feedback from that.
What’s the team like?
We have a great team; three fantastic engineers working with us and I’m on the software side of it. We’re also working with some students from molecular biology- so we are quite flexible, with about 6-8 people depending on the time of the day.
Are UCL quite involved?
We have a lot of great support from UCL Advances- which is their student startup hub. We did the project as undergraduates which means they don’t own a piece of it. We also won some internal competitions which funded us from the beginning and we still have lots of conversations with them, they still really advise us.
We have further support from some other institutions in London. We are enterprise hub fellow members at the Royal Academy of Engineering and we are also members of the Synthetic Biology Hub at Imperial.
Do you think universities and startups are going to get closer together?
I think there is a push in universities for that, obviously inspired by Stanford and those kind of places. UCL is one of the best universities for interacting with students and building up those resources. I think there is definitely an interest in universities to diversify- its great for them to see ideas that can go into further research or translate them into new companies.
There is definitely a hype but also, great interest in building new companies.
A university is such a safe space to start a new company. I guess you don’t have the same level of adrenalin of Ive got to make this work or I don’t have a livelihood. But, you do have a lot of space to explore, you have infinite forgiveness from people when you tell them you’re a just a student.
Despite having pros and cons where you’re not always taken seriously, I think there are a lot of resources which students can take advantage of that they often don’t. And they are still so untapped! I’m sure at some point people are going to get onto that trick and it’s going to get harder.
The amount of facilities our university had for prototyping and market research- was really amazing. There is the flipside, that you have to make the transition from the student team where you get everything for free to a startup- where I’m actually responsible, I have a product that people actually rely on and if it blows up in their face- I could go to jail…