New hackerspace Berkeley BioLabs opens in southwest Berkeley

CEO Ryan Bethencourt and co-founder Ron Shigeta discuss the idea of Berkeley BioLabs, the self proclaimed “hackubator” that aims to provide a creative space and shared lab for scientists while providing business support.
Walter Zarnowitz/Staff
CEO Ryan Bethencourt and co-founder Ron Shigeta discuss the idea of Berkeley BioLabs, the self proclaimed “hackubator” that aims to provide a creative space and shared lab for scientists while providing business support.

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Perched on the edge of the Berkeley Marina is an unassuming building, home to a number of labs and, most recently, a new space for biotechnology researchers to experiment and push the boundaries of their fields.

Berkeley BioLabs, a self-proclaimed “hackubator,” aims to provide a creative space and shared lab for scientists while providing business support for potential products — in essence, to help researchers develop their ideas into reality.

Ryan Bethencourt, the lab’s CEO, claims that Berkeley BioLabs is the largest such hackerspace — a collaborative workspace for researchers to experiment on new ideas — for biotechnology researchers in the nation. In a space that roughly spans half the size of a tennis court, Bethencourt hopes scientists will develop products such as medical devices and ultimately accelerate biotechnology innovations.

“There are going to be new services and products that no one had predicted,” Bethencourt said.

Berkeley BioLabs formally opened last week, though it hasn’t yet finalized its membership. Expansive yet cozy, the space consists of one large lab room full of equipment and work benches as well as smaller discussion rooms.

Researchers will additionally have access to data and papers as well as one another, said Ron Shigeta, chief scientist and co-founder of the lab.

“Here, we’ve got a space where there’ll be a dozen or so different companies sharing ideas,” Shigeta said. “You’re going to get that environment where you’ll be inspired to take your idea to the next level.”

This is Bethencourt’s third such hackerspace — he also helped found nonprofit BioCurious in Sunnyvale and Oakland hackerspaces Sudo Room and Counter Culture Labs. Berkeley BioLabs joins several such spaces in the city, like Mothership HackerMoms on Adeline Street and a newly opened hackerspace for students in Cory Hall.

Yet according to Bethencourt, the lab is one of the first in the area to also focus on the development of biotechnology products to help “incubate” and fund new ideas.

“Berkeley has incredible science, yet it hasn’t been as successful at commercializing it as Stanford and Palo Alto,” Bethencourt said. “Berkeley has incredible potential as a place to build incredible companies. There are a lot of people who have a lot of great ideas but can’t make their ideas a reality without these tools.”

Mary Ward, a researcher who will be working at Berkeley BioLabs once it opens operations, intends to study the lifespan of flies by analyzing how their microbiome and genes affect their longevity. She emphasized the importance of having sufficient access to resources and being able to collaborate with other researchers and entrepreneurs.

“(This space is in) stark contrast to how research is going on right now,” Ward said. “I’m not in school or anything, so just getting access to papers is impossible.”

Berkeley BioLabs held its launch event Thursday, drawing roughly 70 people from the community — a turnout Bethencourt believes is promising and reflects the need for such a space.

Currently, the lab is looking for both individual researchers and companies to fill the space. Some future projects include protein-folding software and therapeutic development.

“The biggest part of science is creativity, but there’s not a place for high risk experiments,” Ward said. “That’s what’s going to be different about this space.”

Contact Jessie Lau at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessielau93.