An ugly brick high-rise hidden by parasites of aging scaffolding is the perfect hideout for a high-tech scientific club. Behind the heavy wooden door to 33 Flatbush Avenue is a seemingly abandoned floor landscaped with hills of ancient office junk. In the back is a rickety elevator that looks like it doesn’t work anymore. As if hidden intentionally, perhaps to thwart off the science illiterate, each floor above that is home to several high-end scientific, robotic, and green teams including a full rooftop garden with tomatoes, bees, and fish. Genspace, New York’s first community biotech lab, occupies a wing of the seventh floor.
Genspace is a nonprofit open lab space devoted solely for biotech related scientists and artists that use science to create art. Biotech buffs around the New York City area can come to Genspace to conduct their own research and experiments that are usually funded individually. For $100 monthly membership fee scientists can come use the space whenever they like. Oliver Medvedik, Ph.D. started Genspace just two years ago because he felt there were a lot of local scientists with great insights that had nowhere to conduct their research, including himself. “It operates like a gym does, a synthetic biology gym,” says Medvedik who is now Director of Scientific Programs. “It’s an open lab space where people come to do their own research and experiments here in a community setting, where they most likely wouldn’t be able to afford in the big labs.”
“It’s a synthetic biology gym.”
While members are responsible for much of their equipment, Genspace provides specialized biotech gear such as incubators or PCR machines. There are corporate park giants like Research Triangle in North Carolina, and Hershey Center for Applied Research in Pennsylvania that charge thousands of dollars to rent out lab space with that kind of equipment. They are flooded with Fortune 100 companies that can afford it, such as IMB, CISCO, or Apogee Biotechnology Corporation.
The small staff of Genspace offers educational programs as well, such as classes on life science, bio lab safety, and in independent research. Scientists also offer collaboration on the different works of their members; sharing info and helping with experiments. Alexander Kozovski, a local bio scientist and member of Genspace says: “They are very open to discussing your project and helping you work or guide you through any difficulties you may have.”
The money Genspace makes from membership dues and tuition for classes supports the space and the staff. While biotechnology is the main focus of their organization, the field of study — especially with our hankering for more natural energy resources over the last decade — has the potential to generate investor interest. Genspace is home to many scientists exploring ways for their work to take off. Several entrepreneurs have come through to conduct their work, then leave starting successful companies and organizations.
Last month, President Obama convened a special commission to study synthetic biology, a rapidly growing bio science dealing with genetic alterations that can lead to new discoveries of alternative fuels, and the House held a special hearing on the massive investment potential in synthetic biology. Research on synthetic biology had received $430 million in US government funding from 2005-2010, and Genspace members are now experimenting heavily with synthetic biology. According to a market analysis from Fidelity Investments synthetic biology could be “the defining technology of the 21st century.”