Out of the lab, into a shipping container
London’s young research scientists are breaking new ground in unlikely places, finds Tom Ireland
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