Out of the lab, into a ship­ping con­tainer

Lon­don’s young re­search sci­en­tists are breaking new ground in un­likely places, finds Tom Ire­land

The Guardian Weekly - - Discovery - Sophia Evans/Ob­server

If there’s one place you wouldn’t ex­pect a new biotech re­search lab to be built, it’s slap bang in the mid­dle of a busy Lon­don market. Yet nav­i­gate through stalls sell­ing fish, fab­ric and phone cases in west Lon­don’s Shepherd’s Bush market and you’ll find a brightly painted court­yard and a small A4 sign that reads: “THIS AREA MAY LOOK EX­CIT­ING, BUT IT’S RE­ALLY NOT, SO PLEASE DON’T GO THROUGH! THANKS.”

This is the unas­sum­ing en­trance to the Open Cell “bio-vil­lage”, a col­lec­tion of 45 ship­ping con­tain­ers be­ing con­verted into pop-up biotech­nol­ogy labs and workspaces. One of the gi­ant green con­tain­ers al­ready houses a sur­pris­ingly light and airy molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy lab, fur­nished with do­nated pro­fes­sional equip­ment. A small com­mu­nity of star­tups and en­trepreneurs are busy con­vert­ing other con­tain­ers into more labs, of­fices and work­shops and will use this low-cost, un­con­ven­tional space to share equip­ment and ideas.

De­spite be­ing open just a few months, there is al­ready ex­cit­ing re­search be­ing con­ducted here, in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of new ve­gan cos­met­ics, sus­tain­able bio­plas­tics for use in the fash­ion in­dus­try and sys­tems that ex­tract nu­tri­ents and en­ergy from waste wa­ter. There is a startup that “grows” build­ings out of fungi (see be­low right), while another helps farm­ers pol­li­nate crops us­ing swarms of flies con­trolled with an app.

“There are not many startup spa­ces like this,” says Rowan Mink­ley, co-founder of Chip[s] Board, a com­pany de­vel­op­ing a new ma­te­rial made from the potato peel­ings dis­carded by chip com­pa­nies such as McCain. “We need a space where we can in­stall all of the equip­ment we need and just make a mess.”

His col­league, Rob Ni­coll, is wear­ing a lab coat to whack a hole in the wall as we speak. “We are not from a strictly science back­ground, so to be able to work along­side peo­ple do­ing bio­chem­istry and de­sign re­ally helps de­velop your project.”

The mix of engi­neers, de­sign­ers and ar­chi­tects is part of a trend that has seen biotech­nol­ogy move out of large re­search in­sti­tu­tions and into more in­for­mal and un­con­ven­tional set­tings, such as com­mu­nity workspaces and even peo­ple’s base­ments and bed­rooms. As the com­mon­est tech­niques in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy have be­come cheaper and more eas­ily au­to­mated, once dis­tant fields such as bi­ol­ogy, de­sign, art and engi­neer­ing are blur­ring to­gether in un­usual and cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tions. These groups need low-cost fa­cil­i­ties to de­velop cre­ative ideas into busi­nesses.

“Just like you can pro­gramme a laser, or a mill, or a 3D printer, you can now pro­gramme liv­ing things to pro­duce nat­u­ral prod­ucts,” says Thomas Meany, a former physi­cist and one of two co-founders of the bio-vil­lage. “Here, the aim is to bridge a gap for peo­ple who are in­tel­li­gent and have a pas­sion, and want to com­mer­cialise their prod­uct, but not in a univer­sity.”

The site’s aes­thetic – ship­ping con­tain­ers, street art, cool young peo­ple mak­ing things and smok­ing roll-ups – may su­per­fi­cially sug­gest just another faddy regeneration project. But the Open Cell biovil­lage is backed by high-pro­file sci­en­tists from nearby Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don, who, de­spite the mod­est sign at the front, are very ex­cited in­deed about what is go­ing on in the con­tain­ers.

“I am com­pletely con­vinced that a great idea will come out of Open Cell,” says Pro­fes­sor Paul Freemont, co-di­rec­tor of the Na­tional UK In­no­va­tion and Knowl­edge Cen­tre for Syn­thetic Bi­ol­ogy and ad­viser to the project.

“The at­mos­phere and the feel­ing of the place is all part of it. It helps break down bar­ri­ers be­tween peo­ple working in dif­fer­ent fields and in­sti­tu­tions. It pro­vides a com­pletely neu­tral venue and there is a cer­tain sense of free­dom that I think this par­tic­u­lar gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple find very at­trac­tive. There’s no doubt about it, it’s go­ing to be a hot­bed of cre­ativ­ity.”

Safety is the ob­vi­ous is­sue when plac­ing a biotech lab­o­ra­tory in a crowded pub­lic space. The site is cur­rently a Biosafety Level 1 fa­cil­ity, the low­est of four health and safety cat­e­gories (Level 4 be­ing labs that work with fa­tal air­borne dis­eases). While the project finds its feet, the founders have de­lib­er­ately stayed away from any ten­ants wish­ing to do any­thing “con­tro­ver­sial”, such as biomed­i­cal re­search that would in­volve hu­man tis­sue or pathogens.

“I thought safety would be the breaking point of our pro­posal,” says Open Cell’s other co-founder, de­signer and en­gi­neer He­lene Steiner. “So we tried to find ten­ants who are like am­bas­sadors for biotech­nol­ogy and worked re­ally closely with chemists, bi­ol­o­gists, ar­chi­tects and our eth­i­cal board to get that right. But we haven’t heard from any­one about any con­cerns.

“Even­tu­ally, we do want as di­verse a group here as pos­si­ble, with the com­pu­ta­tional as­pect, the molec­u­lar as­pect, the mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy as­pect and the man­u­fac­tur­ing as­pect all to­gether.”

With more ten­ants mov­ing into con­tain­ers ev­ery week, there are plans to con­nect sev­eral of the con­tain­ers to cre­ate an even more hi-tech “com­mu­nity lab” and make the en­tire site open for the pub­lic to learn about what mod­ern bi­ol­ogy can do. The cu­ri­ous jux­ta­po­si­tion of this cor­ner of west Lon­don, where tra­di­tional fab­ric sellers and bio­ma­te­rial sci­en­tists co­ex­ist in the same space, is per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing of all the ex­per­i­ments go­ing on here. But even the founders don’t have a solid idea of what di­rec­tion the site may take.

“Our slo­gan is ‘space to evolve’,” says Steiner. “That means on a per­sonal level, but also that the space evolves with the ten­ants. If there is some­thing miss­ing, then they have to build it. How will the space look in six months? We don’t know.”

Aleksi Ve­salu­oma of Biohm; (be­low) Open Cell founders Thomas Meany and He­lene Steiner; (bot­tom) Rowan Mink­ley and Rob Ni­coll of Chip[s] Board

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