Community ‘garage lab’ opens for citizen scientists

Community ‘garage lab’ opens for citizen scientists
Jonathan Meuser, CEO and co-founder of Algi, demonstrates how his company’s device measures oxygen and hydrogen output of green algae during photosynthesis at the community lab opening. Photo by Rachel Stine

CARLSBAD — Pursued by the city for years, Carlsbad’s first community science lab and incubator opened to entrepreneurial scientists and curious community members on July 12.

“This has been in the works since 2009,” said Councilmember Farrah Douglas at the opening. “In my eyes, this is just the beginning. It’s going to grow, it’s going to get a lot bigger and our citizens are going to benefit from it.”

The city aspired to open a community lab to provide the necessary space and equipment for scientific entrepreneurs to collaborate and develop their ideas without deterrent start-up overhead costs. Ideally, work within the lab would produce new companies that could contribute to Carlsbad’s thriving life-science industry.

Joseph Jackson and Kevin Lustig of the nonprofit Bio, Tech, and Beyond approached the city about founding and operating the lab, and in January of this year, the city provided them the lab space by leasing a city-owned vacant building on Faraday Avenue for $1 per year for the next five years.

“There are really good incubator labs out there, but they are very expensive and privately owned. This is like a community garage in a lot of ways, where everyone is welcome,” said Carlsbad’s Director of Community and Economic Development Kathy Dodson, who worked on behalf of the city to establish the lab.

What was once an abandoned Farmer’s Auto Claims building now contains a myriad of donated equipment, lab benches, and scientists eager to get started.

Budding equipment company Algi is one of the lab’s first residents, and its founders plan to conduct experiments to measure the photosynthetic abilities of different strains of green algae. They hope that their measuring device can help utilize the electrons produced by green algae during photosynthesis to make biofuels.

Algi CEO and co-founder Jonathan Meuser explained that the Bio, Tech, and Beyond lab met all of the company’s initial needs.

“I needed a place that is affordable, seeing as we’re trying to get off of the ground, where we could do experiments, we could do demonstrations, we could have deliveries sent to and also that we could use as an address to apply for government grants,” he said.

Carlsbad resident Richard Sportsman hopes to use the lab space to study proteins and conduct experiments for his family-owned wine analysis equipment business.

“I think this lab is great because it allows certain companies that don’t have access to some of the biological tools and equipment to come here and use it,” he said, as he demonstrated a puzzle game for people rearrange proteins.

Jackson of Bio, Tech, and Beyond said has been thrilled with, “the tremendous reaction in the community with people coming out from everywhere, people with 15-20 years deep experience with pharmaceuticals and biologics showing up and volunteering their time, finding equipment.”

“Life science is obviously the bread and butter of this region,” he added.

But Jackson said that now that the lab is open, Bio, Tech, and Beyond must work extremely hard to obtain the necessary funding for the lab’s remaining start-up costs.

Ultimately, the community lab aims to be self-funded through membership fees, corporate sponsorship, and community donations.

“Of course money, money, money is always number one. We can do things much less expensively than a typical university lab or other environment with our overheads but still gotta have some cash flow to really do it,” said Jackson.

He said that among other things the lab is in need of a plate reader, single channel pipetters, and distilled water.

Bio, Tech, and Beyond is currently sponsoring a 50-day online campaign to raise $50,000. The campaign ends Aug. 11, and donations can be made at indiegogo.com/projects/bio-tech-beyond.

“I’m just so excited to see the combination of scientists, community people, corporate people that are here at this opening that just makes me think that we’ve got the right combination, the right mix for Carlsbad,” said Dodson.

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