play / 2014

An Open Biology Lab for Everyone

An Open Biology Lab for Everyone

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Los Angeles Biohackers, Inc

@LABiohackers wants to get more young people involved in the life sciences by making the hobby accessible and fun


Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

We plan on expanding both in size and capabilities to serve a larger number of people with a wider variety of interests.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits a population of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • San Gabriel Valley
  • San Fernando Valley
  • South Bay
  • Westside

What is your idea/project in more detail?

Los Angeles Biohackers is an organization that has built an open community laboratory and meeting space focused on helping people of all ages and education levels gain access to advanced biological equipment and expertise.

In generations past, kids turned to creative toys such as Lego and Erector Set. But recently kids have been adopting more advanced toys such as Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. We want to take this further and introduce more young people to biotech as a hobby.

We will expand our current ability to serve the community with more space and more tools for kids and adults alike to learn and have fun together.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

To implement this idea, we will grow our organization through a one year expansion plan. The plan consists of three distinct goals.

1) Acquire new space so we can accommodate larger amounts of people with more workbenches, equipment and meeting areas. We are currently self-sustaining in that revenue from classes is able to cover our costs. But we have a chicken and the egg problem. In order to expand to accommodate more people we need more money. In order to bring in more money we need to accommodate more people. With money from LA2050 we will expand our current facility to 2-3x the current size. This will provide us more space for work areas and meeting areas.

2) Acquire more equipment so more people can use it simultaneously and use it in a safer manner. We currently have a fully functional molecular biology and biochemistry lab. But while we have many enthusiastic and passionate instructors the limiting factor is often the quantity of equipment. Additionally, much of the equipment is old and less safe than modern equivalents. Through this expansion plan we will replace much of our unsafe equipment and also install new safety precautions so that kids and adults can work, play and learn together with fewer injuries.

3) Expand our class catalog. While one of our organizations strengths is the open lab that people are free to work independently in, many people without degrees in technical fields need guidance when starting. LA Biohackers offers introductory classes to alleviate this problem. But our class selection and frequency is not great enough to satisfy the demand of a larger community. So we will create new classes based on community demand as well as offer our current classes more often.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to PLAY today? In 2050?

While kids of the past may have tinkered with Lego or Erector Set, kids of today tinker with electronics. As a result of the miniaturization and decreasing cost of manufacturing, electronics today are more accessible to people of all ages than ever before. Kids at the LA Makerspace (and makerspaces around the world) build robots, design and solder their own electronics, and program computers as a form of entertainment.

Biotech is currently undergoing the same revolution in price and accessibility. While practicing biotech as a hobby is not quite as affordable as electronics, progress is being made and lots of young people are getting involved. We envision a future where kids in LA are just as likely to pick up a pipette as they are a soldering iron. Playing with biology will be as common place as playing with electronics.

LA Biohackers will make this dream a reality before 2050 by getting young people access to laboratory space and advanced biotech equipment in addition to knowledge and guidance. We are currently making this happen but with help we can expand our breadth and scope to include more people of all ages.

Whom will your project benefit?

Our project will benefit anyone in Los Angeles that is interested in biology and biotech. Our laboratory is not limited by age or earned degrees. Anyone who can demonstrate the ability to follow safety guidelines can have fun in our space.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

LA Biohackers has recently been working closely with LabLaunch, another organization submitting a proposal to LA2050 (confirmed, please see their proposal). We plan on moving in to their facility and becoming the first tenant.

LabLaunch is proposing to create a startup incubator that would help early stage companies. In the biotech world, early stage companies typically already have a proven concept and venture capital backing. LA Biohackers, in addition to serving as a common meeting and work space for the community, would also serve as a “pre incubator” for the LabLaunch incubator. People with a nascent idea can use the pre-incubator to advance their project to the point where it could attract angel investors or venture capital. The company would then move in to the full incubator.

LA Biohackers benefits from this relationship by gaining access to discounted space that is amenable to hosting a biology lab as well as access to some of their resources. LabLaunch benefits by having a source of new companies to feed into their incubator. And we both benefit from the cross pollination of ideas and technical knowledge between the two groups.

Factors that are critical to our success are 1) having a paid employee to work and communicate closely with LabLaunch 2) negotiating a deal that is doable with LA Biohackers’ budget but also compensates LabLaunch appropriately, and 3) working with local universities to get projects from the university into the pre-incubator program.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Play” metrics?

  • Access to open space and park facilities
  • Number of parks with intergenerational play opportunities (Dream Metric)
  • Number (and quality) of informal spaces for play (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Currently we are only able to handle a small amount of kids in our lab due to space and equipment constraints. After the completion of this project we will be able to accommodate more kids and get them enrolled in our classes which, although nontraditional, we consider to be a new form of an “after school program.”

LA Biohackers is diverse in terms of the age of people who use our space. Jr High students work alongside older more experienced scientists. As we grow we will be able to increase the quantity of people, both younger and older, that make use of our space. In this respect we will provide more “intergeneration play opportunities.”

Most people would consider our space “informal” and “nontraditional”. There are no swing sets or soccer fields. Kids are free to explore and play in the world of science. In this regard we will be providing one more place people can use as an “informal space for play.”

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

We will keep track of the number of people attending our classes, both on a per class and a per month basis. We currently do this through our class signup website.

We will measure the amount of people using the space per day by keeping track with sign in sheets and our electronic keys.

The classes we offer will be tracked by frequency of occurrence and diversity of topics covered.

We will measure the age diversity of our users by collecting data through paper based questionnaires. We currently do this for classes but we will expand this to include people using the space outside of classes as well.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

When it comes to designing classes we will take note from the large body of literature on teaching methods to guide the curriculum. Many people before us have discovered methods that work and methods that don’t when it comes to hands-on learning. This will help us avoid mistakes and keep us from reinventing the wheel when it comes to teaching methods.

We will also learn from our own mistakes and successes when it comes to building our lab. LA Biohackers has been in existence for 3.5 years and through that time we have built our current lab from nothing. We have become skilled at finding equipment through local universities and biotech companies. We have made plenty of mistakes when trying to do more with less, particularly when trying to patch up older damaged equipment for the modern equipment that we really needed. This acquired wisdom will help us build a much better lab in much less time.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

1) LA Biohackers has a proven track record of growth within our means, even without any paid employees. The lab that we currently have was built completely by generous donations of used equipment and through the effort and time of passionate volunteers. With money to hire a part time manager we will have better organized volunteer efforts that can focus on the exact tasks that need to be accomplished to complete this expansion project.

2) La Biohackers will be partnering with LabLaunch which will give us access to affordable, properly zoned, real estate. Without this partnership, finding space that is affordable and also allowed for use as a laboratory is difficult. This space will be renovated by LabLanch to fit the needs of biologists which takes much of the burden of renovation off of our organization. Additionally, we will have access to the personal networks of the LabLaunch staff which will aid us in project management and access to sources of equipment.

3) As previously mentioned our organization runs completely on volunteers. As a result, new class development is a lengthy process since no one can dedicate a large amount of time to building the curriculum and working out the bugs. With hired staff that can focus on the project, class development will happen more rapidly which will allow us to serve more people. This will in turn bring in more revenue through donations which will create a positive feedback loop to help grow LA Biohackers even more.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

One challenge will be keeping people interested during our transition. There will be a period where our old lab has been dismantled to the point of not being functional and our new lab has yet to be completed. People may find it difficult to continue work on their projects during that period. Since we will be hiring someone part time to manage the project there will be good coordination and communication between LA Biohackers and LabLaunch to make the transition move as quickly and painlessly as possible. We will also coordinate with specific users of our lab to make sure that the resources they need for ongoing projects are given priority.

Another potential challenge will be creating class curricula that interest the most people. Since we cater to a wide variety of age groups and education levels, creating activities that are simple enough for the beginner but also interesting enough for the more advanced crowd is quite a task. We plan on splitting our classes into two difficulty levels, beginner and advanced, so after taking a beginner class on a particular topic, one can then move on to the advanced class on the same topic. Topics will be chosen through surveys to determine what fields and techniques are in popular demand.

What resources does your project need?

  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Infrastructure (building/space/vehicles, etc.)
  • Community outreach