The biotech revolution

In recent years the do-it-yourself biotech movement has been gaining momentum, spurring a growing number of community labs across the country. At the forefront of this movement is Ellen Jorgensen, Co-founder and former Director of the Brooklyn-based biotech lab Genspace and Founder of Biotech Without Borders.


In recent years, the do-it-yourself biotech movement has been gaining momentum, spurring a growing number of community labs across the country.

At the forefront of this movement is Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder and former director of the Brooklyn-based biotech lab Genspace, and founder of Biotech Without Borders.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you, Hari.

So, first, the DIY biotech movement -- I mean, just kind of explain that for us.

I think it was kind of the perfect storm around 2008.

You had the rise of the maker movement, where people were putting 3-D printers everywhere -- in schools, in libraries -- and people were learning how to solder, forming maker spaces.

And then you had the rise of the field of synthetic biology, which is basically making genetic engineering sort of easier -- sort of an easier entry into it, more plug and play.

And then you also had the economic downturn, which ended up dumping a lot of used equipment on eBay.

So all of those things combined, I think, to make it possible for the first time, really, for somebody who doesn't have classical training in biotech to enter the field.

So, what were the kinds of projects that you saw people pick up and do when they came into one of your spaces?

So, a lot of the original projects were things that they had strength in.

So, they were reverse-engineering lab equipment or, you know, creating robots that would do lab work.

But eventually, as the community matured, we've started to segue into more interesting things.

So right now, there are projects as diverse as taking the proteins of milk, putting them into yeast, and making real vegan cheese.

This is a project at BioCurious Labs in the San Francisco Bay area.

We even have another lab in that area trying to make insulin by a generic-type process.

They call it the Open Insulin Project.

And at Genspace, we've had a lot of different entrepreneurs doing everything from trying to turn spent waste from the brewing industry into animal feed, to working on RNA-based therapeutics.

So, kind of the whole spectrum.

And it sort of increases access to people who have an idea who just didn't have a vehicle and a place to play.

Absolutely, and when you talk to professional scientists, and you say, 'Hey, I've got a space where you can do whatever your imagination -- wherever it leads you, as long as it's safe.

It doesn't have to save the world, it doesn't have to make money,' which is really kind of the tinkering mentality that most scientists got into science because of.

Their eyes light up, and it has served as what I call a pre-incubator space, and also a space where people that aren't classically trained can have sort of an entry level into the technology.

And what's Biotech Without Borders?

Biotech Without Borders is my new nonprofit, and I became very, very interested in kind of -- sort of the global implications of how what I've learned from the DIY community in Brooklyn can be applied more globally.

I'm starting to get involved in an effort in the country of Ghana to... partner the growth of synthetic biology within some of these nations that are really hungry for this technology.

The other thing is, of course, locally.

As a woman in science, I went through a lot of stuff when I was coming through the ranks, and that's still there.

If you look at the gene jocks, the majority are still men -- the people at the upper echelons.

And so, we have a ways to go, and I would like to support young people that are from groups that aren't necessarily represented in science right now and try to do more for that particular group in terms of internships, training.

New York City public school teachers -- There are a lot of schools that don't have a lot of resources.

And to have a lab that can actually provide these services for the general community is pretty important.

So, if you can take this across borders, I mean, who knows where the next big biotech idea comes from?

It could be in Ghana.

Exactly. Exactly.

And 'borders' meaning not only national borders, but borders of culture, borders of community.

Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder of Biotech Without Borders.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.