ShackLabs has three main aims:
- Capacity building in the bioprocess engineering sector, with primary focus on innovative, value added wastewater treatment. Main areas: process control, analysis, and later, process modeling.
- Cross-disciplinary engagement between bioprocessing, biotechnology and embedded systems
- Solutions development appropriate to Southern African conditions (including inconsistent energy supply, repairability requirements, open source design)
It is not a Venture Capitalist (VC) funded incubator. Its aim is not to generically grow the biotech industry. It does not charge for lab space, and it does not take equity from successful ventures.
It is in informal collaboration with the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER), at the University of Cape Town. It is part of Merah Mas Industrial Biotech, and is one of three interlinking divisions, the other two being Wastewater Biorefineries, currently 100% research based, and IndieBio Events (previously Adventure Sport and Science Tourism (ASST)), focused on building awareness and understanding of bioprocessing in the public sector, with specific aim to find and attract talent, skills and tools to build the industrial biotechnology industry.
ShackLabs is primarily based on open source technology, and believes in the creative commons model of copyright, or rather, copyleft (see for example Creative Commons).
The first project for ShackLabs to focus on is Mushroom production. The reasons for this include:
- Merah Mas needs cashflow, and mushroom production seems to be a promising market.
- While the process control and analysis for bioprocessing is weak to start with, and for bioprocessing with smaller profit margins/cash recovery models even worse, the process control from solid substrate fermentation, of which mushrooms are a subset, in a way, is virtually non-existent. It’s a good place to start injecting some African hacking innovation.
- From a research perspective, I am interested in growing fungi on biosolids, an d mushrooms is the more aesthetically pleasing version of this to start with.
ShackLabs aims to contribute to some of the challenges highlighted in the BioEconomy strategy in the following ways:
- Develop and retain appropriate human resources for biotechnology.
‘Appropriate’ is the challenging term here. People need adequate maths and science literacy. ShackLabs aims to partner with initiatives like Numeric and AIMS for basic literacy, and have ‘wrapped MOOCs’ (include link via CILT?) for university level courses, assisted bypart-time working post-graduate students and graduates (who are working at ShackLabs while pursuing other opportunities or full employment). These are then supplemented by workshops of varying involvement, organised by Merah Mas Industrial Biotech, and informal engagement with people passionate about the technology and voluntarily active in initiatives like Arduino Cape Town, the Cape Linux Users Group (CLUG) and Debian.org. In return for these services, the volunteers and students get access to workspace, storage space for their hobbies or sideline projects, and networking with others in the industry through the IndieBio Events division. Promising projects may be further investigated through formal CeBER studies, and/or commercialisation where appropriate. In this way, ShackLabs builds critical thinkers capable of working in a multi-, or even trans-disciplinary environment, while having sound, rigorous science backgrounds, in a fun and community-oriented environment.
- Support sustainable industrial development using biotechnology.
‘Sustainable’ means two things here. The first is a pipeline of skills and projects that can continue feeding into the industry, with neither a supply or skills-gap. The second is in a way that contributes to economic, social and environmental well-being. The approach outlined above contributes to this approach by its wide, collaborative nature. (Please ask critical questions here, it will help me articulate my thoughts)
Challenges that I believe ShackLabs can help address:
- Research institutions work in silos.
Critically, ShackLabs is an independent initiative. In this way it can cover and communicate with wider universities, industrial research centres and research groupings,and not get caught up in academic or corporate bureaucracy. Part of the reason to collaborate with CeBER, UCT, is to further the aims of multi-disciplinary approaches to the transfer and application of relevant research - "The Centre maintains a diversity of disciplines across its researchers and collaborators to nurture a cross-disciplinary approach to research."
Through the network of graduates we can also build an ecosystem that bridges knowledge silos.
- Inappropriately skilled and inadequate science and technology workforce.
With ShackLabs’ approach of working with real projects and with hobbyists, we approximate the apprentice model, while grounding this with more structured literacies and science content. The participants are effectively trained by industry, for the skills relevant at the time.
- Shortage of entrepreneurial skills and technology transfer skills and mechanisms.
ShackLabs is not interested in ‘entrepreneurs’ per se. Instead we cut the hype and engage in projects that require problem solving, and by design attract what could be called entrepreneurial minds, in a non-intimidating environment, where skills transfer happen around real projects. In addition to this, IndieBio events will host competitions from time to time, similar to the Business concept competition – Moola for Amanzi hosted for the UN World Water Day in 2012.
- Poor capacity to absorb science and technology graduates, and
- Unemployment among life science postgraduates.
ShackLabs aims to provide a space where these graduates can contribute to skills transfer and gain relevant experience to strengthen their resume, while they are looking for wider and more permanent employment. While we are not prepared to guarantee or advertise the potential for entrepreneurial ventures to arise from these interactions, it is our hope that this will happen.
- The ‘innovation chasm’
ShackLabs tries to side-step the dangers of innovation for innovation's sake, and rather aims to address real, identified industry challenges. The aim is not building intellectual property and high risk, high return investments, but to create sound solutions that build industry and heal society. For this reason we avoid Venture Capital funding and the stringent requirements that often accompany this as a strategy.
- Marketing and communication strategies to promote South African innovation (including for foreign direct investment).
This is the reason for IndieBio Events, discussed elsewhere, but ShackLabs is important in this context to provide continuity once the marketing has been created.
- Unable to use knowledge pools effectively.
As discussed above, ShackLabs builds critical thinkers capable of working in a multi-, or even trans-disciplinary environment, while having sound, rigorous science backgrounds, in a fun and community-oriented environment.
- Uptake of mobility funds for experts and students has been slow, probably due to marketing and communication challenges.
These funds often have requirements that require an overlap between industrial and research/not for profit capabilities, which is hard to achieve.ShackLabs aims to complement this required overlap, and help to better shape these mobility fund requirements.
- Inability to increase absorptive capacity of the system and create new jobs.
We hope that ShackLabs can influence this favourably.
- South Africa remains a technology importer with a large negative technology balance of payments.
Not only does ShackLabs aim to directly contribute relevant technology that has been developed in South Africa, but do so in an open, radically cost-effective way, specifically developed for Sub-Saharan Africa’s challenges – economically, politically, socially and environmentally.
- Mismatch in the risk and return of capital budget investment.
By avoiding the hype around ‘blockbuster’ biotech, and the requirements of VC funding, ShackLabs already manages expectations of the perceived returns of our flavour of industrial biotech. By working with both industry and research in a cross-cutting, systemic way, the risks can be addressed sooner, leading to more realistic outcomes.
Requirements of an implementation plan:
- Cross-communication skills between different disciplines.
- Business skills, coaching, innovation-guidance (e.g. through IDEO-type workshops), entrepreneurship courses for bio-support fields like agriculture and wastewater, organic waste treatment.
Financial business model:
- Workshop fees (high amount of subsidized content, but some fee-paying subscribers)
- Sale of mushrooms (longer term approach)
- Research funding, through mainly the Water Research Commission (WRC)
- Possibly funding through University of Cape Town and maybe the Department for Higher Education.
- Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) funding.
- Small industrial research projects contributed by existing companies.
- Cross-subsidisation from Merah Mas Industrial Biotech: Wastewater Biorefineries and the IndieBio Events division (which includes competitions – this is all still in development).
- In the long term, more commercial investments, hopefully.
Physical look-and-feel of ShackLabs:
- Currently, a 3.6m * 4.8m Wendyhouse in Lakeside.
- Free, reasonable (2Mbps) internet.
- A few laptops (currently one, running Linux) available for use. – Numeric and MOOCs loaded.
- Converted into a small lecture theater, seating approx. 20 people for monthly events or courses or workshops.
- In the main residence (garage)
- A rudimentary lab with the basics – pH meter, conductivity meter,
ShackLabs should be able to happen anywhere and everywhere, but experience shows that you need dedicated people, who sees the big picture and who have the networks and resources to coordinate the physical space and the people who frequent it effectively. Sciencentres could be potential homes for ShackLabs, but I see most of them occurring in the backyards and garages of students and Post-Docs.
My ShackLabs is a wooden structure the size of a garage, at my residence. I see myself tinkering there after work, and occasionally having friends join me. Perhaps monthly meetings and ad hoc projects, and certainly entering competitions once in a while. I see my ShackLabs community starting from about 6 people, but never really getting to more than 20, with people coming and going as their life changes, getting jobs, graduating and so on.
Inside the ShackLab there are a few computers, loads of electronic equipment like breadboards, microcontrollers, Raspberry Pi's, Arduino's (Websites: Communica,hobbyist shops).
In a corner, or, in my residence, a separate garage space, is the 'clean lab', where the soft mushy stuff lives; the jars of things growing, the petri dishes, glass beakers, analytical equipment, fridges, heating containers the size of coolerboxes...
Some personal musings on the matter (links lead to separate website):
- ShackLabs - the learning centre
- ShackLabs, version 2
- Biopunk notes
- ShackLabs Sections
- ShackLabs: the WHY