Bento Lab wants to be the Raspberry Pi of molecular biology
Think overfunded Kickstarters and you probably think of Pebble, Pono, Ouya and any number of other weird, one-word devices that have had variable success after funding closed.
By their standards, Bento Lab is a modest success – at the time of writing it has sourced £134,000 of funding, having set a target of £40,000. What is particularly interesting, however, is how it has reached that goal.
Bento Lab is a serious product with a serious price tag. If you scan down the reward tier on the Kickstarter page, you will see that actually getting your hands on the product will cost at least £699. Just 153 of the 579 backers have requested a Bento Lab of their own, with a further three purchasing a subsidised Bento Lab for a school of their choice. The rest have requested other rewards, such as a T-shirt, or simply donated to the cause.
With this much good will, you can tell that its backers think Bento Lab is a special product. Indeed, Kickstarter’s own stats show it is something of an altruistic anomaly.
Assuming Bento Lab lives up to its promise, it is a special product: a portable DNA lab designed to straddle the needs of established scientists and those taking their first steps into molecular biology. The kit – which fits into a container the size of a bento box, hence the name – comprises a centrifuge, a transilluminator, a PCR thermocycler and a gel electrophoresis unit. In other words, everything you need to start analysing DNA in a package you can fit in a laptop bag.
If all of those words feel entirely foreign to you (laptop bag aside), don’t zone out just yet. While it may seem that Bento Lab is a product aimed at someone else, you couldn’t be more wrong.
“The difference between what most people know and what experts are capable of is really very divergent,” explains co-founder Phillipp Boeing (pictured, below). “We’re now in a time where we have in-vitro babies, we have genetically modified food, we have 23andMe, but we don’t really have a democratic vocabulary to think about these things. We don’t have enough hands-on ways of engaging with it.”
“The equipment is just the physical thing that invites people to engage with the subject – but the subject is more important.”
Boeing and his team wants to change this and bring a different culture to the world of molecular biology. The Kickstarter video references the success of Raspberry Pi in opening up computing to all and making the environment more open. “One has to be careful with these metaphors, of course: Raspberry Pi is the latest in a long history of personal computing [devices]; there is not really a long history of personal laboratory tools,” adds Boeing.
As such, there is no blueprint, and the Bento Lab team has been careful to get outside the laboratory and engage with different groups to ensure the finished product isn’t a closed book to outsiders. Working with citizen scientists and running workshops in schools has helped the team refine their concept in a way they hope will make it usable as an education tool, for art projects and for scientists working outside a laboratory.
“Bento Lab, on one hand, is a great piece of equipment for scientists, but we think of it more as a trojan horse – it is almost more interesting what you can build around it and what people do with it. The equipment is just the physical thing that invites people to engage with the subject – but the subject is more important,” says Boeing.
“I feel like we’re not really informed enough about issues like genetic privacy and the big ethical dilemma of taking a sample without someone’s consent. Those are not science-fiction any more – we actually live in that reality.”
“Before the Kickstarter, we sent out Bento Lab beta units to lots of different types of people, including scientists, but also citizen scientists and amateurs. It is an ongoing quest – we’re at a good stage, but I wouldn’t call it finished. It is an ongoing process we have to engage with. What is in the capabilities of the lab hasn’t changed – what has changed is the user interface, which went from a text-based one to a completely graphical UI, which would work in any language.”
The beta testing was also sure to tackle design basics, which is essential when trying to appeal to experts and easily intimidated amateurs. The team had to strike a balance between something that looks like a scientific tool, but is inviting and friendly. “We did a lot of testing around that – and that extends to the branding. It’s not called ‘Synthetic Biology Box’…”
So, while the Kickstarter page mentions uses for serious scientists in the field, it also suggests simpler experiments that allow people to interact with the world around them. “Test a hamburger to see if it contains horse meat,” it suggests, or “investigate your beer for bacteria that spoil it”. The latter example is demonstrated neatly in the video below:
Open the world of genetics and molecular biology to lay people, of course, and you open yourself to unusual use cases. The Kickstarter FAQ offers a fascinating insight into this, with people keen to try everything from testing sequencing DNA to conducting their own amateur paternity tests.
“I was not surprised we got those questions,” says Boeing, who explains how these enquiries came in a flurry over a week or so, probably as a result of a niche blog theorising the capabilities of Bento Lab. As the FAQ says, it is theoretically possible to conduct paternity tests using the tools, but it doesn’t have the right reagents – and, more importantly, it opens a whole can of ethical-dilemma worms. “We use these questions as a way to introduce a discussion on bioethics. It is probably not the answer they want, but that is our approach,” says Boeing.
“To me, it validates that it is really important to bring some of these things into a social discussion. I feel like we’re not really informed enough about issues like genetic privacy and the big ethical dilemma of taking a sample without someone’s consent. Those are not science-fiction any more – we actually live in that reality.
“What we want to contribute to is a community where we have some degree of hands-on literacy with this, and we don’t just take all our knowledge of this from science-fiction or certain magazines.”
To that end, a big part of the group’s next move is trying to ensure that a community grows organically alongside Bento Lab to ensure that knowledge is shared across its disparate communities. Launching another product or Kickstarter isn’t the priority.
“Ecosystems like Adreno work because they have a great community,” says Boeing. “But, in molecular biology, we’re one of the first products trying to do this at a certain scale and inclusivity – it is really important that people don’t feel alone with a piece of hardware, and see it as a gateway to be part of a community that can help them when they’re doing a project.”
While Boeing feels we’re unlikely to see prices come down to a point where Bento Lab or an equivalent product can match the mass-market appeal of the Raspberry Pi any time soon, he hopes the price they’ve reached can provide a similar revolution in an area that’s comparatively underexplored.
“Biotechnology is a really important part of our technology infrastructure, but we seem the least informed and we have the least say in it,” he says. “Tinkering with electronics or a relationship with coding seems much more natural, but open your fridge and you have mostly biotech products in there.”
Images: Bento Bioworks