DIY Biotechnologists Go Looking for a Bigger Garage

Biotechnology was a darling of the investment world in the 1990s. Aided by genetic engineering, entrepreneurs were going to come up with novel drugs that would make people healthier, and pharmaceutical companies were going to take them to market and make a boatload of money.

But things haven't turned out quite that way. Drugs are expensive to develop and difficult to get approved. No one is quite sure whether to blame drug companies or the FDA (or, like The Atlantic's Megan McArdle, both). Biotech companies have a hard time getting funding, and many pharma outfits are cutting back their R&D programs. An industry journal, Chemistry and Engineering News, tracked all the cutbacks in a recent post, and the numbers aren't pretty. A spate of acquisitions and subsequent layoffs in 2008, 2009, and 2010 has eliminated tens of thousands of jobs. Most recently, Merck announced it was laying off 15 percent of its workforce last week.

It sounds grim, and for the industry, it is, but help for biotech innovation may be on the horizon. The here-comes-everybody mentality is creeping into the biology world. DIY biology may be on the verge of breaking into the mainstream.

Tastemaking nerd culture blog BoingBoing featured a group of hackers trying to found their own biotech lab. BioCurious began in co-founder Eri Gentry's garage, and now the group is trying to upgrade and expand its facilities. They want to replicate the success of hackerspaces and TechShop, which allow the financial burden of expensive tools to be spread over a group. And they see themselves as "ground zero" in a revolution of the way biotechnology research is done.

"The 20th century saw an unprecedented centralization of science around an industrial model. The plummeting costs of enabling technologies has brought meaningful biological research back within reach of the independent citizen scientist," the group writes on its wiki. "From Bio-Art to BioFuels, the wave of next generation biotech applications is set to transform our culture and economy. BioCurious will be Ground Zero for this revolution."

BoingBoing's David Pescovitz had high praise for the group. "I think efforts like BioCurious are essential to the future of biotech," he wrote. "In fact, I think efforts like BioCurious are the future of biotech."

This is a worldview shaped by the era of personal computing and the Internet. There is an easy analogy that can be made, after all, to the computer industry. The first computers were huge machines built for the military, government, and industry. Then, in the late 70s, computers became personal machines mass produced for consumer use (though the supercomputer variants never went away).

Whole ecosystems sprang up to help entrepreneurs use these new, cheap machines to build businesses. The open, lean, collaborative business culture now associated with Silicon Valley flourished. Could the same thing happen in biology? Gentry and her co-founders think so.

"The Bay Area is home to many networks that help entrepreneurs launch web businesses with a shoestring budget and a dream. Similar support infrastructure does not yet exist for biotech ventures," their wiki continues. "Until recently, biotech has required large start up costs. An ecosystem of mentorship and a network of investors who understand the possibilities for lean-biotech-start ups to leverage shared resources and amplify their creative efforts to have disproportionate commercial impact, is urgently needed. BioCurious will catalyze the formation of this system."

Clearly people playing with DNA, and even building businesses from that work, in a garage will raise red flags for people. What about biosafety? Could they create a nasty virus? The issues BioCurious raises remind me of how tech icon and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, closed a session about biological engineering during the Aspen Ideas Festival. "The century of biology is also the century of bioethics," he said.

The DIY biologists are eager to have that conversation. Another BioCurious co-founder, Joseph Jackson, is organizing an Open Science Summit in Berkeley at the end of July to discuss a greater set of issues about how science is conducted in this country.

What could be more important that optimizing the functioning of our science + technology paradigm for a 21st century Open Knowledge Economy? ... More than 40 speakers from across the country and around the world will discuss the most urgent policy questions surrounding: gene patents, open access data/journals, the future of peer review and scientific reputation, novel funding platforms for scientific research grants and technology development, patient activism/cure entrepreneurship, citizen science, the rise of DIY biology and its attendant regulatory and security concerns, and much more.

I've been hearing about garage bio for years now, but nothing as serious as what Jackson and Gentry are up to. It's easy to be skeptical: huge corporations (not to mention universities) throw tons of money at problems in biology and meet with failure, so why should a bunch of kids have any success?

Well, the probably won't cure cancer, but dealing well with failure is also part of the Silicon Valley attitude towards technology development. And in the meantime, they could just help push garage biotech (and open science) towards respectability.

(Full disclosure: Jackson was a college classmate of mine, but we rarely see each other and haven't discussed the Open Science Summit. He's only mentioned his garage bio work to me in passing. One extra thing I do know about him though is that he's a ridiculously jacked bodybuilder, which is pretty unusual for a guy with a master's degree in the philosophy of science at London School of Economics).