"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?