As part of our new book “What’s Your Bio Strategy?” we’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics working on synthetic biology. The following is an excerpt from one of those interviews. To find out when the book goes on sale subscribe to our newsletter here.
Synthetic biology, according to one of the definitions, is a movement to make biology easier to engineer. Synthetic biology is also a hardware and software movement. Among the hardware makers is Bento Bio, maker of the Bento Lab, a laptop sized DNA laboratory. The lab comes with:
- a thermocycler to run the polymerase chain reaction – a method for creating multiples copies of the same DNA strands;
- a centrifuge;
- a gel electrophoresis box to separate DNA and proteins.
Bento Lab plays into the open-source hardware Arduino and Raspberry Pi movements that empower citizens to co-create and be technology literate. What makes Bento different is that the company is creating open, inexpensive hardware powered by easy-to-use software to give makers, students, artists, and scientists access to the tools that make molecular biology possible.
To learn more about Bento Lab and its progress, we interviewed Bethan Wolfenden, one of the original founders. Bethan is an iGEM veteran and a synthetic biology PhD student in London.
Bento started as an iGEM project. In 2012, my co-founder, Philip Boeing, and I had joined an iGEM team and were collaborating with the London’s Biohackspace. There, we realized you could do molecular biology outside the academic setting.
We thought that synthetic biology was an incredible tool and didn’t want to wait until we finished our Ph.D.’s to stay involved with the do-it-yourself bio community. We figured out that if you wanted to reach a larger audience and expand the community, you needed infrastructure – something people could hold in their hand.
Our original plan was to create projects that we were interested in doing. Projects that were connected to synthetic biology but also to the general DIY bio community. But to do that, we learned you needed equipment that was affordable and user-friendly, equipment that you could interact with intuitively.
We asked ourselves, If I’m going to do synthetic biology, what do I need to get started? The answer was, I need hardware. You also need reagents. Then you need knowledge. The hardware is expensive. You can get the reagents if you’re creative enough. As for knowledge, you can look at protocols but they’re not well documented. If you start by reading someone’s published experiment, you quickly learn it’s not like reading a recipe book. They’re always at a high level, you have to decode them, then good luck.
We had this ecosystem in mind where the hardware would be easily accessible, you could get the reagents and find protocols that were easy to understand and that you could easily share.
One of the things you end up seeing a lot of in the DIY bio community and iGEM is people recreating elements of a project that someone has already done. People use BioBricks, they add components, or they add new ones but there is a fair amount of repetition.
We created Bento in response to that. We wanted to offer everything you needed to get started, but also made sure that you could hold it in your hand and would be guided with protocols so you wouldn’t get discouraged. That kind of thinking was informed by open source and software development.
We started building prototypes for inspiration and showed them to people. We asked what they wanted. We were getting invited to science fairs. That allowed us to speak to a lot of different people, different markets, and get more feedback. We ended up speaking to hundreds of people and integrated that feedback into our process. Now that we understand the process, we realize that was early customer discovery.
At a certain point, they started to ask how do we get this? Can we buy this from you? That’s when we realized we might have a business and reached the point where we were ready to create the product.
We launched in April of 2016 and sold 300 units of the Bento Lab. The lab is the first product. The starter kit is the second.
In February 2017, we’ll launch an online learning platform geared toward beginners. Our goal is to transition from hardware to helping users use the hardware.
At this point, we haven’t raised any funding but we’ve had early discussions with potential investors.
It’s been interesting to see the unique applications being developed by the user base. The Bento Lab fits right into traditional businesses such as agriculture. People in agriculture have asked us if they could use the Lab to collect molecular data. They see it as a low-cost way to collect the data in the field. We expect it will be good enough for their purposes.
Another example is microbreweries. They typically send samples to labs to test for contaminants, microbes that could be found with a PCR test. With Bento, they can do that in house, get a result in two-three hours. As a result, they don’t have to outsource and can do it in-house on a daily basis.
An unusual inquiry we got was from a textile restorer. They wanted to use DNA analysis to identify the fibers in textiles in a museum exhibit. That’s not something we would have thought of as an application.
Since we work alongside an architecture firm, we’ve learned they often have to test for anthrax because many of the old buildings in London have walls made of lath and plaster that used horsehair. There have been cases where anthrax has been found in London because of this, so we could see some applications around testing in buildings.
We’re looking forward to seeing how the community ends up using the labs, develops the protocols, and helps us move the company forward.