[Day 4] Biotechnology and open science hardware


Biotechnology and open science hardware

Facilitator: Tobey Wenzel
Documentation: Jenny Molloy
Attending: Marc Juul, Harry Akligoh, Eduardo Padhilla, Marina de Freitas


Discussions centred around open hardware for biotechnology research. DNA and reagents (“wetware”) are included in hardware as functionally they have many similar issues. We discussed the phenomenon of community biolabs, access to equipment and projects in a global context. In general there is interest in the GOSH Community in setting up a pipeline to get biotechnology equipment from resource-abundant to resource-poor areas. The current plan to achieve this is to source information about importation guidelines for both equipment and biological material, through previously collected data and an experiment within the GOSH community. Ongoing work on surveying molecular biologists will also be useful to inform how best to improve access, whether through policy changes, better legal tools or other routes. The group is committed to ensuring that biology and biotechnology are on the agenda at regional OScH events.


Discussions centred around open hardware for biotechnology research. DNA and reagents (“wetware”) are included in hardware as functionally they have many similar issues.

Setting up labs and access to equipment/materials

We discussed the phenomenon of community biolabs, access to equipment and projects:
EU has strict regulations about genetic engineering (need a third party to complete approval paperwork and very detailed e.g. type of paint) but US is more flexible as long as you’re ot recieving gov fundign or selling a project. Much easier to access equipment in the Bay Area. Lots of equipment due to churn and business failure. Counter Culture Labs got approved as a teaching institution with an organisation that collects equipment and reagents. Now similar organisation in Boston, there is interest in setting up a pipeline to get equipment from resource-abundant to resource-poor areas.

Jenny: setting up in the UK is relatively easier, need to pay Health and Safety Executive £500 and fill forms but rapid and quite easy if you have access to people with formal biology qualifications.

Harry: Ghana has very little biotech at the moment and would like to start it at the Hive. There are no regulations on how to do genetic modification as far as we know. Most universities are unlikely to be checking if their labs are doing the right thing. Event in Kumasi as part of African Science Week introduced biohacking and most academics did not know what biohacking is. Challenges to getting reagents and equipments are very high so work in this area is encouraged.

Cost has been a major factor that has come up a lot but customs and shipping is also key. Solvents can be an issue, particularly in Brazil/Peru and other Latin American countries.

Action: Try and send some things that could get stuck in customs. Set up an experiment. Should connect with Louise Bezeidenhout (has thought about an importation project) and Addgene who ship bacterial stabs to almost every country but sometimes need to send dried DNA instead.

How does open hardware map into this space?

Many people are unaware of open hardware so Harry has been trying to advocate. Academics did not understand what they could gain and were asking a lot of questions about collaboration and validation. Need to create more understanding about the advantages.

Jenny: Why is DIYBio important for the open hardware context or vice versa?

Eduardo: hardware is only half of the way, once I have built the hardware I still need the biological materials and media/reagents. Cannot hack everything.We need to talk about open
hardware & DIYBio together if looking at the University environment and to independent researchers.

Biohacking thrives where you can get second hand easily, what do we do in places where you can’t?

Marc: Lots of low hanging fruit because the technology is old-fashioned e.g. OpenTrons is doing a great job but still it’s a pipette on an XY stage and we haven’t moved on. Some corporations hold patents for electrowetting and have no incentive to make an electrowetting platform that is affordable.

There is a lot of low hanging fruit for affordable and open research-grade equipment e.g. -80C freezer but there is nothing to meet research needs in some areas like electrowetting (even proprietary solutions) so that is more interesting.

Looking at scale-up and enterprises.

Harry: Most African countries are having this challenge in how they do their own research. Need a levelling ground.

Tobey: Information sharing is a problem even in very well-resources institutions, there are very well developed technologies but they’re not documented, although they may sometimes try to patent and commercialise. Technicians work for the University, not for people outside so the incentive is low for them to document the systems.

Marc: open hardware and commercialisation is not a dichotomy.
Tobey: they want to license out and not do the technology development themselves.
Marc: this is partly a lack of legal tools and worry about outcompeting from large companies. Could do a patent pool model where ThermoFisher can copy you but have to license back?

Jenny: more understanding needed of the patent situation globally, too few people are aware of how patents work and that you can use technologies in areas where they aren’t protected. I have been looking at patenting in South Africa and Ghana but can be difficult to get the information. We found 18 polymerases with expired US patents but a lot more recent ones could almost certainly be used in Ghana.

Marc: Are you sure? Would it be possible to check?

Jenny: Would love to check and will be contacting the Ghanaian patent office to find out how and publishing results of the findings.


  • Gather data the better understand the limitations in access for university researchers and the Biosummit.community labs to biological materials [Jenny, Harry]
  • Look at expanding and disemminating discussion about biohardware to AfricaOSH and other regional events [Harry, All]
  • Conduct an importation experiment [Harry, Jenny, Marc, Eduardo]
  • Cowdsource regulations on DNA/microbe importation e.g. ask Addgene [Jenny]
  • Spread the word about legal tools for biology e.g. OpenMTA [All]


This was a very interesting conversation that we had. Great and insightful feedbacks. The future looks promising. Am very much optimistic!