Last week the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) closed a Request for Information for the National Bioeconomy Blueprint. I previously submitted the Biodesic 2011 Bioeconomy Update as background information, and I then extended my comments with a proposal aimed at "Fostering Economic and Physical Security Through Public-PrivatePartnerships and a National Network of Community Labs" (PDF). In short, I proposed that the U.S. government facilitate the founding and operation of community biotech labs as a means to improve the pace of innovation and reduce the attendant level of risk.
Garages are a critical component of technological innovation and job creation in the United States. Over the last few years the Kauffman Foundation has published analyses of Census data that show start-ups under a year old are responsible for 100% of the net job creation in the U.S.; firms of all other ages are net job destroyers. Moreover, as I made clear in my testimony before the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, garages played a crucial role in developing many of the technologies we use on a daily basis. Thus if we want to maintain a healthy pace of innovation in biological technologies, it makes sense that we will need to foster a profusion of garage biotech labs.
A biotech lab in every garage will make many a policy wonk uneasy. What about safety and security? I suggest that the emerging model of community labs (Genspace, Biocurious, etc.) is a good foundation to build on. The FBI already has a program in place to engage these labs. And as it turns out, the President has already signed a document that states garage biology is good and necessary for the future physical and economic security of the United States. The USG could offer grants (financial, equipment, etc) to labs that sign on to follow educational and operational guidelines. The existence of such labs would facilitate access to infrastructure for innovators and would also facilitate communication with those innovators by the USG.
I will admit that in my early conversations with the founders of Genspace and Biocurious that I was skeptical the model would work. More than a decade ago I put serious effort into figuring out if a commercial bio-incubator model could work, and I concluded that numbers were nowhere near workable. I also think it is too early to take real lessons away from the for-profit hackerspaces that are cropping up all over, because there isn't enough of a track record of success. Anyway, and fortunately, the folks at Genspace and Biocurious ignored me. And I am glad they did, because I was stuck thinking about the wrong kind of model. Not for profit and community engagement is definitely the way to go. I think most medium to large U.S. cities could support at least one community biotech lab.
Where should we put these labs? I suggest that, following the recent model of installing Fab Labs and Hackspaces in public libraries, the USG should encourage the inclusion within libraries and other underused public spaces of community biotech labs. There are endless benefits to be had from following this strategy.
I could go on, but there's more in my submission the OSTP: "Fostering Economic and Physical Security Through Public-Private Partnerships and a National Network of Community Labs" (