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Being a Lizard
Why I'm building a lab in Saint Louis, Missouri.
“What I’m saying is: be the lizard. The mammals—that is, mainstream scientists, the ones who get PhDs and professor jobs—have their niche covered. What we need is more people doing botany in their backyards. We need basement chemists. We need amateur geologists and meteorologists.”
- An invitation to a secret society | Adam Mastroianni
5 years ago at around this time of year, I was preparing to begin my journey studying biomedical engineering in Saint Louis, Missouri. After my first year of study, I was realizing that I wasn’t getting the ROI I was expecting, and so I dropped out. This was readily justified for me because I'd started a software company that had just started to make money, although not enough to subsidize my income or my school's expense. I went on to spend the next few years working on this project, and then sold my majority to a private equity group.
They reason this context is important is because gave me the flexibility to do what I do now. Even though I'd earned the freedom to pursue independent research, I didn’t think that it was something I was actually capable of doing. I was disillusioned by the idea the academic gatekeepers would never take me seriously as an independent and so went on something of a novelty search in order to figure out how I might best spend my time next.
This led to my getting involved in a podcast, hosted by my friend Vance Crowe. Vance had been doing the podcast for about a year before I got involved but was looking for someone like me to help scale and handle some of the aspects of production. I accepted, and in return, he encouraged me to use this platform as a means of getting in touch with anyone in the world who I wanted to hear from. Vance knew my background, and so he also told me to think of this period of time as a sort of 'graduate school'. This time to most who would have otherwise pursued a traditional trajectory is a time of intense learning, exploration and choosing a big idea to focus in on. So that's exactly what I did.
On the podcast, Vance interviews people who spot patterns in business, culture and science that others don't or at least haven’t yet. Through this podcast, I was more or less able to hear from and build relationships with the people who's ideas I thought were most important to my area of interest and I'd finally developed the conviction to start actually doing independent research in the areas I thought were most salient.
Initially, this namely consisted of reading a lot of papers. Once I identified a direction I wanted to narrow in on, I began aggregating information from dozens of papers to make the case for the direction I wanted to pursue, and simply copy and pasted the relevant information from each study to a link on my website. Eventually, someone I shared this with to present my case pointed out what I’d done was nearly a complete literature review, and so encouraged me to get it over the finish line by organizing the information into sections with my own commentary, and putting it through peer review for publication.
I did, and now that paper is live here, making me something I hadn’t thought I’d be for the foreseeable future: a published author in an academic journal.
Because of my background in software engineering, I have also made an effort to work with the data and replicate some of the computational studies I was reading about. Eventually I'd done this enough to start to use the same tools and data to explore my own research questions.
We’re about caught up to where I am now, whereby my next fundamental limit has become that the experimental work to validate the work I am honing in on is not being done anywhere to continue driving my computational studies. Since opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated, the next obvious step for me was to find a place to do this work.
It quickly became apparent that the coasts were the best place to do this—which makes sense, the coasts are the best place to do a lot of things. However I've never had much interest in relocating from Saint Louis since I've settled here. I'd played the game once before of moving to a major metropolitan area and after 2 years of living there, had built no personal leverage for myself and saw that I was never going to in the ways that were important for me—In short, this meant being able to own a home before I was 60 and raise kids with a backyard, but you know, to each their own.
So issue number one for me was geography. Once I localized my search, I came across one co-working lab space that is more geared for funded but early stage start-ups that costs $2,000 per month and has a basic set of shared equipment such as benches with fume hoods, waste disposal and other amenities you'd expect in a typical lab set-up. Now, even if I was excited to pay $2,000/mo for the space, I'd still have to purchase all of my own equipment like PCR machines, microscopes and the like in order to actually work in the space, and so it was an imperfect solution.
I began reaching out to peers and discussing in forums how I should be thinking about doing the work I wanted to be doing. This is when I really came into contact with the independent biohacking community. I'm not referring to the subset of folks who choose to inject themselves with experimental therapies, although there is some overlap. I'm talking about the subset of the scientific community out there that is just doing research on their own time and on their own dime.
I managed to get in touch with a few, and after a short foray into this space, I was convinced to jump into the deep end and start buying my own lab equipment. I am doing this primarily for 2 reasons.
Number one is that I have a colleague who like me, is an independent computationalist who is actively looking for space to do physical experiments in. Unlike me however, he's willing to relocate to work in a space that would suit his needs while similarly being unenamored with the idea of moving to a coastal city. He told me something to the tune of, 'Ben, you are constantly trying to get me to come visit Saint Louis and so after thinking about it, the thing that would really get me to come visit you would be if you built this lab and let me rent space in it from you.'
Number two is a bit of a whistleblow on the lab equipment landscape and a trade secret of the biohacking community. One biohacker in particular I got in touch with told me to aim to spend 1-2 cents on the dollar against new pricing on the equipment I needed. At first I thought he was being hyperbolic, but then I started looking in some of the places he told me to, and before I knew it, I was finding and buying thousands of dollars worth of equipment for literally hundreds, making the initial cost barrier I’d perceived negligible.
You’re probably wondering why this is the case. Well, because the people that are liquidating these items see it as junk that is taking up rentable space, especially large items like biosafety cabinets and CO2 incubators. If you're patient, these items can literally be acquired for free. Just last week I bid for a $9,000 incubator for < $50 and a 4 hour drive to Iowa State University.
So why isn't there more demand for this equipment in the open market? According to the NIH, the average research project grant size is over a half a million dollars. You can spend up to $25,000 on a single piece of equipment under an grant budget without even needing to ask for approval. Academic labs and companies with funding have every incentive to buy the coolest new piece of equipment on the market to do their research, and are under time constraints that don't warrant cutting costs by searching the secondary market.
Independent biohackers on the other hand are working under the opposite set of constraints. We may have s surplus of time to answer our research question outside of other commitments, but are constrained by resources and expertise to do so.
This is an interesting fundamental distinguishment to acknowledge. The independent science community is constrained by resources and expertise while the professional community is constrained by money and time. Each set of constraints come at a cost, but here are the strengths of the former:
Independent scientists are free from institutional pressures to explore their curiosities freely. We can pursue risky, but original and unconventional ideas with a high potential payoff without needing to justify the area of exploration to external investors or a grant review board.
On the flip side, the strengths of the traditional community favor methodical and rigorous approaches with a more tangible incentive to disseminate their findings into the broader research community. Although this community is also known to overreport positive and underreport negative findings.
I am building a lab in Saint Louis, MO. My goal is to start small, offering up the space I have available to a few others like me to subsidize my expenses further. Over the long term, I want to expand this into a space like what one would have the option to join on the coasts: Quality equipment made available to not traditionally qualified actors in an environment where those in it may learn from each other and share ideas.
My selfish motif with this lab is to create the environment I want to do my own research in without needing to sacrifice my financial and time independence.
I want to see others with the gall to do so replicate this model in other places, and so I'm writing not explicitly to shill my endeavor but also to elucidate the fact that it is not as hard as it seems. I see the potential to create ecosystems like this in cities all over the county, so that the independent biohacker from anywhere has a place to work without needing to buy all of their own equipment or move to a coast to access a space like this.
This is not just an altruistic mission, it is a market opportunity.
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Price is a measure of the gap between abundance and value. Here are some well established ecosystems like what I’m describing and the corresponding average rents for a one bedroom, one bathroom apartment in the cities where they are located.
Biocurious = $200/mo in Santa Clara where average rent is $3,035
BosLab = $50/mo in Boston where average rent is $2,800
Counter Culture Labs = $100/mo in Oakland where average rent is $2,150
Genespace = $200/mo in Brooklyn where average rent is $2,095
BUGSS = $100/mo in Baltimore where average rent is $1,390
Take the average costs of living in these cities in contrast to these non-coastal counterparts:
Saint Louis = $897
Houston = $1,279
Phoenix = $1,350
Atlanta = $1,750
My hypothesis is that more of these spaces being in existence would not only attract local interest for potential members, but offer a competitive alternative for the would-be biohacker who is willing to relocate.
Take Saint Louis for example with its average 1B1B rent of $897. Someone reviewing the landscape of potential options may see a space here for $500/mo and it would still make economic sense compared to a $50/mo space in Boston due to the difference in cost of living.
Aside from the obvious revenue stream of membership fees, there are a number of other models to be explored for creating value from these spaces that could be tried with substantially less initial capital than a coastal venture due to lower overhead.
Some might try to profit off of intellectual property ownership where the lab retains partial ownership of IP assets generated within the facility. This could lead to revenue through licensing deals or the formation of spin-off companies. A biotech incubator near me is doing something like this, although they require investment first before granting access to the space:
In the earliest phases of commercialization, the pre-equipped labs allow researchers and entrepreneurs to establish lab operations and to initiate proof-of-concept studies without having to raise additional capital to purchase most equipment and rent lab/office space.
Others could drive more revenue by focusing on workshops and training programs hosted for members and the public. These may include hands-on workshops, seminars by experts, and professional development courses.
Finally, sponsored research agreements may be an avenue for seasoned organizations that have a technical lead to guide less experienced members through research opportunities in partnership with external organizations. This would be similar in structure to a traditional academic lab whereby there is a lab head or more seasoned lab members that guide the undergraduates and technicians through the basics until they can hold their own.
I feel very strongly that spaces like these should be as prevalent as a public library. The benefits of having ecosystems like this to work in should not be reserved to those on the coasts, especially to those who are promoting the decentralize science movement. If “DeSci” does not decentralize geographically with the rest of its aims, it’s mission is pointless.
Had there been spaces like this available for me years ago, maybe I wouldn’t have had to go through the long novelty search I began this write-up with. I would have spent the same amount of effort as I did taking a swing at a tech start-up and joined the community's co-working lab to start getting my feet wet in biology from an earlier starting line.
Everything works out as it should though.
If you want something that doesn’t exist, it is your responsibility to create it.
I published a page on my website about what I’ve learned doing this so far here. It also includes the equipment I’m purchasing. I will try to keep it updated as a continue on this path.
Whatever it takes.
Appearances since my last post:
The Sheeky Science Show: Bioelectricity as an longevity intervention
Canvas Rebel: Meet Benjamin Anderson
Mlinarić A, Horvat M, Šupak Smolčić V. Dealing with the positive publication bias: Why you should really publish your negative results. Biochem Med (Zagreb). 2017 Oct 15;27(3):030201. doi: 10.11613/BM.2017.030201. PMID: 29180912; PMCID: PMC5696751.