Starting a biohacking lab in Gothenburg, looking back at Laborator

Back in 2016 I set out to start a biohacking lab in Gothenburg. I had read about biohacking for a couple of years, seen the interesting stuff that labs such as Genspace in Brooklyn were doing, and wanted to take part.

Biohacking as a term means different things to different people:

  • Quantified self: Humans as biological machines – optimize nutrition, supplements, exercise and mental practices, to achieve higher performance, improve quality of life, extend your lifespan, etc. A subset are grinders who do more extreme self-experimentation and invasive surgery or gene editing.
  • Citizen scientists: Folks who are generally interested in doing science – measure Ph changes in streams, find new wild antibiotics, map how pollution effects flora and fauna.
  • DIY medicine: Design of cheap medical and lab equipment from off-the-shelf components, DIY manufacture and protocols for generic medication, such as insulin.
  • Synthetical biologists: Create new organisms and biological systems, or modify and mapping existing ones, using tools such as Crispr Cas9.
  • Futorologists / transhumanist: Interested in ethics, morals, law and policy of biological issues – what will become of humans when we can become whatever we like; a very long view of humanity.
  • BioArt: Contemporary artists and fellow travellers who work with biological systems as material or area of enquiry.

The field of biohacking – if it’s coherent enough to be called that – is wide, and the lowest common denominator is that those involved are predominantly amateurs interested in biological systems of some sort. They might be specialists in other fields (data informatics lends itself to synthetic biology, hardware hacking to DIY medicine, etc) but they come to biohacking with agendas and interests different from a professional lab technician or university researcher.

This goes doubly for me: I’m not specialized in any field applicable to biohacking, and I most certainly don’t have any experience with lab work apart from dissecting a frog in seventh grade. But I do have a broad knowledge of all kinds of stuff, an unyielding fascination with how the world works, and experience with setting up a maker space and learning stuff as I go along. I figured that even though I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to do original research or design, I would be able to cobble together from what others had done, well enough that it would be worth the effort.

I scoured the net for similar groups in Sweden and/or Gothenburg, and reached out on mailing-lists and Facebooks and whatnots to see if there was interest, and over a course of a few months I had a newsletter, a homepage, and a couple of recurring faces at meetings. We founded Laborator, a non-profit association with a charter registered with Skatteverket, and – most importantly – I drew a logo and printed a bunch of calling cards. After six months we had five members and ten times as many on lists and in groups.

(Our meetings were open to anyone, which also attracted some interesting individuals with their own peculiar takes on what we ought to do and a tenuous grasp on social etiquette or reality)

The other members were all biologists of one stripe or another. We had a post-doc, a researcher, a synth-bio dropout and an undergrad. I was the only one without any formal training, and I thought the combination would be great – we’d complement each other and create an open platform for biohacking: The main goal of the association was to get a permanent lab going, equipped to run small workshops and lectures.

Around this time I’d attended the first biohacking conference in Sweden (writeup here), participated in a workshop at Bionyfiken in Stockholm (at the time the only lab in Sweden, since defunct) and started collecting consumables and equipment. I’d also started to build some equipment required for basic experiments (mainly thermocyclers for PCR and gel-plating for barcoding) – and I got in touch with labs around the world to see what they did to get off the ground, hoping to build on their experience, and compiled it all in a communal document. I interviewed the Bionyfiken folks as well as a few artists who work with BioArt, with the ambition to create a podcast which would serve as a platform for Laborator outreach (those recordings are still unrealeased).

Summer of 2017 we talked about doing a first workshop in the fall. It felt as make-or-break time; there are only so many meetings you can have before you run out of steam, and we needed to do something public which would give us a concrete goal as well as garner public interest (and potential investment or grants). We didn’t have a lab of our own, but if we could borrow and equip a space, we’d be able to run some simple workshops. After some discussion we decided that we’d do a simple DNA-barcoding workshop, identifying the fish in sushi (the idea taken from high-school students who’d done exactly this back in 2008 – although they outsourced the labwork) – as it checked most boxes: it’s relatively simple and cheap to do; it shows the applicability of biohacking; it concerns food, which people have strong opinions about; finally, should we discover mislabeled fish we’d have instant media attention.

But then we hit a bunch of stumbling blocks, as one does. Someone got a new job, someone moved – one planning meeting was cancelled and then another, and pretty soon the energy had drained out of the enterprise. As long as there’s a critical mass of people on a project it can survive a few dips. But if the project becomes a metaphorical empty room, stepping inside and sitting down at the table requires a lot of will and energy – it’s easier to turn at the threshold and move on to a more interesting discussion down the hall.

As project instigator, the responsibility and the outcome is all on me. I focused too much on minutiae and side projects, at the expense of keeping the group pulling towards a common goal. In my mind, the lab was already a given and I was eager to move on to the next stage of the project. And so we became spread thin and lost focus. Any communal project is a marathon rather than a sprint: It’s important to be able to step back and trust your collaborators to follow the plans you’ve agreed upon, but when stuff falls through you need to be there to pick up the slack – and plans always shift, since life happens – regardless if it’s you or someone else who dropped the ball.

What I did right, what I did wrong, what I’d do differently today.

I managed to inspire a bunch of folks to get together to start a lab. Even though we had different ideas, everyone was willing to pitch in to make a permanent physical lab a reality. The IT-infrastructure (Slack/homepage/mailing list) as well as coordination with other labs made it all feel as a serious and “real” organisation. We quickly pivoted to organizing a workshop and had clear goals both in the short and medium term, and there was interest and enthusiasm both from members and mailing lists / groups.

What I underestimated was the amount of energy it takes to keep everything going and to motivate people. I abandoned the motivational part too early because I assumed that we all had the same drive, so I stepped back into “process support” before there were processes in place. The big picture of the project was important – thinking about lab space, financing, marketing, collaborations – but at the start all my energy should have been on getting a public workshop or two off the ground, letting the team feel proud of the accomplishment, and build upon that.

Today I would have begun by organizing a workshop or lecture myself, rather than creating an organisation first. This would have limited me to events which I actually could’ve pull off, and it might not have been more than a lecture on “state of DIY biohacking” or “biohacking and the law” or some such – but it could have attracted more people and also gauged the level of public interest. This would also allow a future organisation to be shaped by the events and participants, rather than fiat by charter, as well as provided the motivation for an organisation to be created.

Before writing this up, I looked through the blog to see what I’ve published previously. The topic of biohacking has loomed large in my mind for a while, so I was surprised by the dearth of posts (I might have missed some, my tagging isn’t consistent). The first time I posted on the topic here was in 2009, with just a link-dump: Pasting is the new writing. DNA wants to be free! (some of the links have rotted since). There’s some loose thoughts and a link-dump in 2016 – Biohacking and the things humans do – the 2016 biohack conference linked above, and finally just a brief mention in 2017 when things were petering out.