Cork Biomakerspace, AKA Forma Biolabs: Some Updates

In the considerable time since my last update, much has changed around our biomakerspace project. All for the better, thankfully, though things remain a bit precarious (as ever).

Firstly, as hinted in the title, the Cork biomakerspace project has a name: “Forma”! This name was inspired by that of La Paillasse (“The Bench”) transliterated to Irish. Given the choice between idiomatic but Anglicised “BĂ­nse” or the probably Latin-derived “Forma” we chose the latter because the spelling is more obvious to non-Irish speakers and it sounds exactly as it is spelled in most English dialects.

From this, we have our domain name, formalabs.org, although don’t expect anything if you click there just yet; we’re having teething issues with our web setup. We do, however, have mailing lists (join in!) and email addresses for members which work fine.

More importantly, we have secured a location for Forma Biolabs, a fantastic city-centre location provided at low cost by Cork City Council by way of support to the project. The building is called “Grattan House”, and it is situated on two thoroughfare roads across a junction from the city court-house. It’s bigger than we could have hoped for, by far! Here, for a sense of location and scale, is a video provided for us courtesy of Paul Lee @ viewsion.ie:

And here’s a picture of Niall and Steve, some of our excellent founding cohort outside the building (Don’t worry, we’re not all guys, although our female cohort seem a tad camera-shy):

Niall and Steve outside Grattan House, site of the new Forma Biolabs

The interior of the building is spacious, although the floorplan above is a tad incorrect on account of my giving Paul an outdated floorplan. In sum, there’s room for not one but two labs, ample space to host design or art projects, a kitchen and recreation area, a fireproof safe room, an internal yard with a sheltered seating area, and a few rooms we’re still dreaming up uses for. Here are a few more pics:

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Clearly, there’s a bias for the yard area in this photoset, and a canny reader will note that attributions to my own camerawork are absent; my phone camera is heavily scratched and in need of repair, and so I have not had a chance to construct a proper photo-tour.

The building needs love, but it’s sound. Now we’ve got the task of making a lab out of it, which is less trouble than it sounds thanks to a number of generous pledges of equipment and furnishings from Tyndall, CIT and UCC, plus the entirety of my own lab and some borrowed equipment from members and friends of the biomakerspace. Starting out, we’ll have far in excess of the equipment I used to do my work for a few years of garage-synbio, and we’ll be getting better as time progresses.

Indeed, with all this positivity and photo-documentation it’d be easy for me to omit the challenging points, chiefly that of funding. Right now, we are down on a grant application with one of Cork’s most prestigious institutions (who I’m not sure sanction the early disclosure of our partnership, so I’ll stop there) for an exciting project, and if successful that will net us some initial funding. However, it won’t be nearly enough for the biomakerspace’s needs even in year one.

You see, in Ireland as in most of Europe, genetics is a forbidden art, heavily regulated. It’s OK to shuffle genes as long as you don’t know what you’re doing (see also: “conventional breeding”) but the moment you know what the heck you’re doing it becomes illegal without a license. Thankfully in Ireland, such licenses are possible to obtain without tremendous personal risk and expense, but the details are still pretty forbidding; the license holder becomes liable for any acts done under the license. This means that, for our biomakerspace to become a fully licensed GMM class 1 lab in Irish law (which is our intention), someone’s got to be on the hook, and that someone (if they’re sane) will want to be there to supervise work that they’ll be accountable for. Additionally, the council want a full-time on-site manager if we’re to open the doors to the world and invite public participation. Paying such a person is probably our biggest challenge right now. I speak circumspectly, as I’m currently the only person willing to fill such a role and would be happy to if the funds were available.

As far as outfitting the lab there are also costs we can’t at present account for. We’ll have to do at least some plumbing work to bring water into the two planned lab spaces both for laboratory and emergency use, and we may be retro-fitting one of the toilets near the lab as a grow-room for plant biotechnology work, too. We intend the other lab to be for teaching and for food-development uses, so it’ll have to be up to a standard that can be considered “food grade”, which may take some work. Several rooms will need carpet removal and linoleum or another easily sterilised surface drawn over the flooring. Doors will need fixing, windows reinforcing, walls painting. A lot of this can be stone-soup’d but there is going to be a bill to pay.

Addressing these funding needs is an open question; we are currently hoping that local industry and academia will support our boot-strapping process, and that we can push towards self sufficiency with time and elbow-grease. Time will tell.

If you feel like visiting the building for a tour, drop me a line by email, twitter, or in the comments below. I’m happy to accommodate, time-permitting, and if you think this is exciting you should totally join in! :)

Coming soon; more details on what we mean to actually do here. For inspiration, see all the other biomakerspaces, and also Coder Dojo, and also Synbio Axlr8r!