Ireland's First Biohackerspace: In Cork

Let me share some extraordinary news with you. After years of watching the biohacker movement rise to prominence around the world, my home city of Cork is suddenly and rapidly becoming a hub of Synthetic Biology, and as part of this transition will soon have a biohackerspace modelled upon the success of La Paillasse, Paris.

In case you don’t want to read more, here’s all you really need to know: there’s an assortment of people and supports nucleating rapidly around a biohackerspace in Cork City, very possibly in a unique and curiously appropriate location. You should be a part of it. Join the DIYbio-Ireland mailing list, if you want to be ready to help build-out the lab ASAP when a location is finalised.

Let me tell you about how this came about.

Firstly; much deserves to be written here about my experience with IndieBB (which, if you are not keeping track, failed to achieve its target funding goal by ~25%), but I’ve got more important things to share, and IndieBB’s backers have already received some updates since the campaign closed. Anyone who hasn’t gotten the news by now doesn’t need it.

So, the story. For months now, an effort has been underway to attract bright ideas and proposals for synthetic biology to an unprecedented startup accelerator program, Synbio-Axlr8r, which will be running over this Summer in Cork. As part of the push to get people to consider Cork as a destination for research and development, we arranged a conference, named The Synthetic Biology Future. The conference would bring local researchers and their overseas colleagues together to discuss the future of synbio and their roles in it, as well as the potential for locations such as Cork as hubs of innovation.

I was prepared for an interesting conference; I’d seen the names on the sheets and been CC’d on some interesting email exchanges. I knew I’d meet researchers and synbio developers from around the world whose work I’d been exposed to previously, and I was looking forward to a great conference.

Several things went unexpectedly well at once, which together felt, to me, (by the day’s end) like an ignition.

A large number of students and postgraduates turned up for the event; the former in part because of strong encouragement from course coordinators, the latter due to a few convincing characters in the local scene getting the word out and bullying people to attend in person.

Then, the delegates started to throw around the word “biohacker” with unexpected comfort. This was prior to any of the “usual suspects” like Synbiota or Thomas Landrain or myself; this was people from without the biohacker community discussing it as if it’s a legitimised part of the synbio movement. It is, of course, but this is the _first time I’ve seen non_-biohackers say so first.

To reinforce the early, welcoming mention and discussion of biohacking, the lineup already included a number of self-identified biohackers; Thomas Landrain of La Paillasse, Synbiota cofounder Justin Pahara, conference organiser and serial do-er Jacob Shiach, and (humbly) myself. By the time we had a chance to present our talks and our work, the audience had already heard panels discussing the bright future of small-synbio and biohacking, as well as having been regaled by Se├ín O’Sullivan of SOS Ventures about the importance of risk and “near death experience”. Our reception was, mildly put, warm.

Constant mention was made of the various state and city level constructs that are on the way besides Synbio Axlr8r itself; business parks, earmarked funding, research groups. Absent, I suppose, was my tier; self-driven, open ended research as enabled by biohackerspaces. But, more on this below of course.

Finally, a tidbit revealed early in the day that probably made all the difference was that Cork would be fielding an iGEM team. This came as part of a Cork researcher’s presenting work with synthetic “protein origami”, which was (to me) exciting enough on its own.

At the mixer afterwards (I arrived late after helping with some technical issues in the main auditorium), Bill Liao, whose project the accelerator and conference had been in the first place, expressed an interest in seeing a La Paillasse in Cork, and I have to say it was the first time I didn’t immediately doubt such a thing could happen.

All of this was pretty exciting; we all left the conference feeling uplifted and motivated, I think. I met a lot of great people, many of them in Cork and with a new or revived fascination with the field of synbio, and a taste of the freedom provided by the biohacker mentality.

The next morning, after a late night (Hi Jacob, Thomas, Synbiota & Cork iGEM!) and a failed crowdfunding campaign, I was woken by a call from co-organiser and excellent person Wayne, who told me to be ready to visit a site by early afternoon. There was interest, after the conference; while I was sleeping in (typical) people were planning a biohackerspace, and a potential site was already suggested. Thomas, Jacob and I received a tour of the space, which is amazing and very appropriate, given its history. No early reveals here until it’s final, but I’m excited about this location already.

Over the last few days, the project has gained momentum; plans, communications and collaborations are being put together. A few serendipitous connections presented themselves in that all-too-weird way that they can do. The Cork Biohackerspace is going to happen; it has too much inertia now not to.

This is, to me, the most exciting thing to hit Cork, ever. Obviously I’m biased! But, I’ve been working in my own lab for years, lamenting the company of like-minded biohackers. And, this week I have discovered that there are indeed a sizeable number of like-minded hackers, along with sympathetic academic colleagues, eager supporters, and a network of potential funders and assistants, in my own City. In scant months, Cork will host teams from around the world who are planning ambitious synthetic biology projects, and will incubate and send forth an iGEM team to compete in the jamborees.

And now, we’ll have a place for us all to call home; somewhere to hang our micropipettes and incubate our projects. Somewhere we can apply for a collective license (the EPA explicitly suggested a club to me to simplify licensing, when I applied years ago) and run teaching classes, workshops, tutorials, demonstrations and have fun!

If this excites you as much as it excites me, get thee to the DIYbio-Ireland mailing list, and be ready to help build out the lab. The call could be coming sooner than you think!