A “makerspace” for biologists and engineers is helping University of California, Davis, students get hands-on experience in developing and prototyping their ideas. In just a short time, the Molecular Prototyping and BioInnovation Laboratory (MPBIL), or biomaker lab, has generated three student-run startup companies and is providing a new model for education in biology and bioengineering.
“We wanted to create a new type of multiuse space on campus for students interested in hands-on exploration and creative expression in biotechnology, bioengineering and biodesign,” said Marc Facciotti, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the UC Davis Genome Center. “We aspire to be a hub for creative expression in biotechnology, a place to host new hands-on courses, a home for student clubs and design teams. We also want to be a nurturing environment for budding entrepreneurs.”
Activities at the lab start with a project goal — a product that must be delivered or question that needs to be answered, Facciotti said.
"While the project goals must be clear, the specific outcomes are often unknown at the start. Rather, students are encouraged to innovate and use design thinking to create and explore their own solutions.”
The lab, part of the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s TEAM (Translating Engineering Advances to Medicine) prototyping facilities, extends the concept of rapid prototyping made popular by “makerspaces” into the broad domain of biotechnology. Researchers, students and entrepreneurs edit bacterial genomes. They design, build and test DNA-encoded devices. They express and study diverse proteins. They study the effect of genes on organismal behavior. They build new kinds of electrical devices that interface with biology.
“We’re building a unique place to engage students in practical problem solving in biology,” Facciotti said.
A place to make stuff
In engineering, designing and creating solutions to practical problems is a traditional part of education. All engineering students cap their undergraduate careers with major design projects and many of the students also take part in various design competitions, building everything from race cars and aircraft to software. More recently, the “maker” culture has also established itself firmly in engineering schools and most engineering programs have integrated new rapid prototyping technologies like 3D printing into their formal or informal curriculums. But the “making” culture is less established in the biological sciences, despite strong interest from students in this area in working on meaningful and practical problems.
Facciotti and research associate Andrew Yao set out to capitalize on this opportunity. They equipped a teaching space with a mixture of equipment seed-funded by the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s TEAM lab, scavenged items and donated devices to open the MBPIL in 2014 .
Since opening, the lab has hosted teams competing in the annual iGEM competition, an international undergraduate biotechnology competition. It has facilitated various student design projects ranging from new chemical face peels to biobased glues to novel blood separation devices, and catalyzed the formation of two new project-based courses, one in synthetic biology and one in protein engineering. The Synthetic Biology Club will start to host activities this fall.
Recently, a collaboration with the UC Davis First-Year Seminar program enabled a pilot course in which students designed, built and tested some novel genetic “parts” that could one day go into an educational kit for high school biology classes. Hands-on freshman seminars on yeast, worms and protein engineering followed and a course on microbial genomics will be added this fall.
“These are not cookie-cutter teaching labs, in which there is a known outcome; students in these classes are generating new data and have the experience of creating something new. The research that students are doing in these classes contributes to the scientific community and students enjoy ownership of their class’s project,” said Ashley Vater, curriculum coordinator for the First-Year Seminar program.
Fostering startup companies
In between classes, the lab is open for students to get creative, including trying out ideas that could lead to commercial products and the lab has spawned three student-led startup companies so far. They are Ravata Solutions, Ambercycle and Chromatiscope (see box).
Arshia Firouzi, majoring in electrical engineering, and Gurkern Sufi, majoring in biotechnology, used the biomaker lab to design and build their prototype product, a device for rapidly introducing DNA into embryonic cells. Through the lab they were also able to take advantage of a grant awarded to Facciotti from VentureWell, a nonprofit organization that promotes entrepreneurship on university campuses, and to create their company, Ravata Solutions.
In 2016, Ambercycle, a startup run by UC Davis alumni Akshay Sethi and Mubasher Ahmed, won a Global Change Award from the H&M Conscious Foundation to commercialize a polyester digester, technology that “digests” polyester textiles and converts them into raw materials that can be made into new textiles. The technology was refined in the biomaker lab.
“Prototyping ideas in the hard sciences usually requires specialized infrastructure. The TEAM biomaker facility is special because it allows for innovations to be prototyped in a constructive, entrepreneurial environment,” said Sethi.
Earning national attention
Successes like these have made the UC Davis biomaker lab a pioneer in biotechnology education and design. When David Kong, director of the Community Biotechnology Initiative at MIT Media Lab, wanted to start a biomaker lab at MIT, he studied the UC Davis model.
“I have worked with Professor Marc Facciotti in the past on a synthetic biology curriculum in the Davis space and have been enormously impressed by the facility, its capabilities, its programs, and its positive impact on students,” Kong said.
Biomaker spaces are an essential component of the larger ecosystem for biotechnology innovation, Kong added. “The biomaker space at UC Davis is a tremendous example of what is possible in academia,” he said.