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A Little Ship for Weird Biology
An update on the lab in Saint Louis and amplifying the idea of a Science House
It’s been about 2 months since my last post where I outlined why I am building a biology lab in Saint Louis, Missouri. Between then and now, the number of people subscribed to this publication has grown a good deal. To the newcomers, I wave you a kind hello and welcome you to my corner of the internet. To the rest, thank you again for reading. I look forward to continuing to earn your attention.
The reason for what has been the largest gap between publishing since I’ve started this newsletter is I am not in the business of putting out busywork ideas here and the aforementioned endeavor has kept me quite busy the last few weeks. I’m looking forward to using this post as an opportunity to both provide an update on this and write a bit about why I think scale isn’t always good.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from dozens of folks who either read my last article, or heeded the signal I put out on The Sheeky Science show. Hopefully some of y'all are reading this now. That signal was something to the tune of, ‘If you’re like me, an independent-ish person who wants to find a way to just do the science without starting a company or going back to school and joining a lab, reach out to me. There is another way.’
Not only did I hear from some folks that are outside of academia or a company in this space, but I also heard from a number of individuals who are currently part of an institution and increasingly recognizing the environment is not right for them. Here’s the gists of what folks in these positions told me whether they were in academia or working for a company respectively:
“I have the skills I need and am ready to answer my own research questions, but for the next 4+ years I’ll be stuck building credibility working on someone else’s problems in a rote lab position before anyone would think of giving me a grant to pursue my ideas.”
“I joined ‘X’ company because I am not a business person, I just want to contribute to the work. X company is not working on exactly what I want to be researching, but it was the closest I could get to working on what I wanted to in an economically sustainable way.”
Across dozens of conversations I’ve had over the last few weeks, I heard these thoughts echoed from either side of the fence. They are reservations I share.
I’ve personally been batting back and forth whether or not to do the company thing for my research.1 If I were more naïve I most certainly would have by now, but I’ve founded multiple companies in the past and so know what it takes. I’m not ready to do it again for what I’m exploring now. I’m still doing the basic research and don’t want to take on the distractions that doing this in tandem with a company would bring. In the future, I look forward to being in the position where more of my initial questions are answered and I’m ready to determine how to create value in the market through those answers.
All of this said, the main thing that separates my context from that of those I’ve been speaking with is I have the space to do the work and the means to support myself in the interim. So how did I do this, and how could others be thinking about doing the same?
“This is the fundamental problem with most attempts to reform science: everybody’s trying to turn the Big Ship, nobody’s launching Little Ships.”
- Let’s build a fleet and change the world | Adam Mastroianni
Before I started buying myself lab equipment, I did a bit of running around to see if I could get an investment for what Adam Mastroianni would call a Science House. In the above linked post, Mastroianni describes a Science House as
like doing a PhD, but without the worst parts. The students of Science House will not experience mind-crippling anxiety about whether they'll get a tenure-track job; they are guaranteed not to.1 They won't have to convince themselves that it's cool and noble to produce boring, paywalled journal articles that no one reads; they will instead produce open-access research that's meant to be read by anyone, like this. And they won't spend months stressing out about general exams that turn out not to matter at all; they will instead do...literally anything else.
I was looking for outside capital for 2 reasons:
I sought to acquire about $50,000 worth of equipment which would be a big expense for me to take on personally.2
I wanted a pool of resources to subsidize other people I wanted to work with to come join me in this endeavor.
Despite a handful of promising conversations, I ended up not taking on any backing. The groups I was talking with kept asking me something like the following: ‘This sounds great, but how are you going to scale this to be the WeWork of DIY biology space?’
The answer I gave conversation after conversation is that I won’t. I want my own ecosystem where folks like me can come to do their work without constraints, and I hope to work with a small subset of folks in that space to answer the questions we share in seeing as important. I am not interested in building another big ship to solve this problem, nor do I think anyone should.
The frustrating thing about WeWork is that - particularly in this age of remote working - it is fundamentally not a bad idea. But its mountain of debt, and huge liabilities, underline that scale is not necessarily the panacea many in VC claim it to be. WeWork now lacks the agility to pivot, meaning it will likely be remembered as WeDidn’tWork.3
I suspect an attempt to scale Science House would have a similar problem: the corruption of a good idea through bad incentives. There is also not an obvious path to create a top-down model within one venture for how each house’s unique focuses and values might arise.
Mastroianni continues in his article:
Science House would always be small. When things get too big, bureaucratic psychosis sets in. Instead of expanding Science House, I'd rather build more Science Houses that other mentors can run independently (and I’ve got a few folks in mind). The students of different houses can do projects together and have barbecues and what not, but otherwise each Science House should flourish on its own—the whole point is to have many Little Ships going in different directions. Eventually, you could have a whole fleet of Science Houses doing their own thing: a Psychology House next to a Theoretical Physics House, a Weird Biology House down the street, and a Botany House around the corner.
(Happily honoring the mantel of Weird Biology House.)
The case for many little ships
Working on the same science in a small group at an early stage is like sharing an inside joke. It has no value outside the group who shares the context, nor should it. Over time, it may elucidate a broader pattern that has value to extract and communicate to others, but until then, it remains in the group and is for the group.
For example, ‘Weird Biology House’ is attempting to grow 2 headed worms. When that is all the context you get, it seems like an inside joke from a bunch of cranks. But really, this is what we’re up to. It’s an inside joke that has spread beyond our house, to the degree we even have an applied cognitive scientist in North Carolina sharing in the fun as well.
The humor in a joke is judged on its own merit, unlike the current incentives that dictate where and what scientific research is being conducted. The reason we have renegade scientists in other regions picking up our sense of humor is because the folks who dictate what they can and can’t work on don’t find the joke funny. In the off chance they do, they worry their superiors won’t or their superiors’ superiors won’t.
What’s the pattern here something like a Science House is solving for? To beat the inside joke metaphor to absolute death before moving on, let’s say it is a way to find something funny, without having to convince everyone else—‘the big ship’—that it is funny before you laugh.
In other words, work on the problem before having to convince your superiors, potential funders, the institutional review board, department heads, grant committees, research ethics committees, university administrators, laboratory managers, other graduate students and postdocs, or stakeholders within the community.
The ability to share inside jokes has become lost in the larger academic complex, however it is the perfect use case for a Science House. In a Science House, a couple of renegade scientists can roomie up around a common area of interest and tackle their research question in a lean and direct way.
So how does the idea of creating many little ships heading in different directions scale? And what is the economically sustainable model for subsidizing young researchers to occupy these houses?
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As I started digging around on this idea, I was pointed in the direction of a number of different case studies. The most interesting among them were backed predominantly by a single individual who either had an idea they wanted to be pursued badly enough to incur all the risk or were intent enough on creating third places for scientists that they found ways to bootstrap them off the ground. One such example that converges at this intersection is the Pacific Science Institute. The PSI was founded by Garrett Lisi, a controversial figure in the physics community for his Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.
In 2008, The New Yorker wrote about Lisi:
He began to feel a set of responsibilities—to the broader physics community and to those who had supported him, but also to fully extending his ideas. Lisi had long fantasized about opening a “science hostel,” a big empty house in a beautiful place, like Tahoe, where scientists would gather to do research. He began to think that, somehow, the attention he’d been getting might help to make the hostel a possibility.
In time, it evidently did. The history subsection on PSI’s website reads:
After encountering some difficulty persuading friends to donate nice houses, but finding success in financial investments, Garrett was able to purchase the Maui house in 2013 and open it up for others in this growing community to visit. Later, in 2021, with the help of his partner, Samantha Smith, the Utah house was purchased and furnished, and made available part-time for use by the PSI community.
Lisi’s PSI takes applications to visit either the Hawaii or Utah location on their website and is structured as a non-profit charitable scientific organization. I should admit I didn’t reach out to confirm, but my assumption is that they make overhead on these 2 spaces primarily through charitable donations.
And so we return to the question of what the person without enough notoriety to indefinitely garner charitable donations is to do if they’d like to start a Science House? Well for starters, I recommend buying the house.
A while back, I wrote about my experience urban homesteading in Saint Louis. Long story short, I bought a home for $10,000. Now, it is worth noting that home did not have some basic necessities one might expect in order to comfortably occupy the space such as water, electricity, heat and the like. However, I was 20 years old at the time, and so jumped at the opportunity to own a 2,000+ square foot, masonry building all the same. It’s been 5 years since I made that decision, and along the way was able to cash out some of the sweat equity from that house to acquire a few other investment projects in the same neighborhood.
My point in saying all this is I have a reasonable grasp of what it takes to make the numbers make sense in housing, and when you’re not looking to buy in an expensive coastal city, they can look pretty good pretty easily.
For example, let’s break down the situation in which you’re buying a finished home in a neighborhood like mine for $300,000. You and 4 other friends pool $10,000 each for the down payment and so there is a $250,000 debt to cover via mortgage. Even at today’s ridiculous interest rates4, you’re looking at a monthly payment of less than $2,500.5 That’s an easy nut to cover split 5 ways and could be made even easier if you get a mission aligned group such as Emergent Ventures or 1517Fund to toss a grant your way for the endeavor.
I’m yet to get either6, but am currently making my model work as such: if you’re willing to work on my science, I’ll subsidize you as much as I can without loosing money. If you just want a place to work on your own research using the equipment I have, rent one of my nearby units at market rate and you can still have access to my lab space to work on whatever you want. Final option is move to Saint Louis at all and I’ll still let you use my space for free until that becomes impossible due to demand from the latter options after which point we’ll figure out some monthly fee. I’m already looking into how to move this operation out of my abode and into a dedicated space that will accommodate a more sophisticated set-up.
I have one person who’s taken me up on this offer so far. After a couple week stint to try out the arrangement in September, Weird Biology House resident numero uno has decided to relocate to Saint Louis from Germany.
The hard pitch ends there!
I say all this not just to entice my limited pool of readers to come to Saint Louis and do biology without constraints, rather if you’re in the slightly larger pool of folks who is interested in doing independent science at all, just get started. Buy a house somewhere the numbers work to enough of a degree for a group of 5 to bartend on the weekends, make enough dough to cover the overhead and work on whatever turns your gears during the week.
Or heck, come to me with a budget and I’ll buy one for you. This is a serious offer, one that will come with strings such as me profiting in exchange for incurred risk of ownership, but it is one I am putting forward here that I would seriously consider. I have quite a few people coming to visit me here in the Midwest over the next few months to call me on my BS and see if this is a place they could see themselves occupying. If you’d like to be in this camp, consider this your invitation. Write me an email.
If the demographic I predominantly spoke towards today isn’t you, hopefully these past few paragraphs have at least been novel enough to you to be worth the price of admission. As always, I appreciate your attention and devour feedback. Leave it for me as harsh as you’d like in the comments below. My heart is not faint.
Build in public.
For the record, I do have an entity, but when I say ‘do the company thing’ am referring to fundraising, building a business plan, etcetera.
I already talked about how price of equipment wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought it was in my last post. In fact, at the time of writing, I’ve acquired about 80% of what was on my wishlist for less than $15,000 and even had someone reach out who ended up sending me a single $60,000 piece of equipment at no cost other than shipping and handling. Huge thank you to Benjamin Hoffman for this. If you’re reading this, your CloudTMS is being put to good use!
8.5% prime at the time of writing.
With a 30 year amortization. A 15 year amortization would still have you at less than $3,000/month.
Not for lack of trying, stay tuned, this is a nudge-nudge to my open conversations to get behind me here.