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‘Garage Laboratory’ Concept Is Experiment in Reaching Out

Kevin Lustig has an eye for slogans. He’s the CEO of what he calls “the Amazon.com of biotechnology,” and his latest venture is opening “the world’s largest garage laboratory.”

Catchy?

To clarify: Lustig’s company, the Carlsbad-based Assay Depot Inc., is an online marketplace that connects researchers and companies, allowing them to outsource some of their lab processes by searching for vendors in more than 600 drug research areas.

Large pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer Inc., AstraZeneca Plc and Johnson & Johnson have signed up for the service, paying $250,000 apiece to get customized access to the vendor transaction site.

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Lustig is not resting on that accomplishment, he’s blazing other trails.

His “garage laboratory” concept is modeled off of “hackerspaces,” which are community-oriented workspaces that have been springing up around the country. These grassroots tech hubs allow people to meet and collaborate on individual or group projects.

Bio, Tech and Beyond

Lustig is building a community life-sciences lab inspired by this idea, and preparations for a July launch are in full swing. The space’s name even has a ring to it — it’s called Bio, Tech and Beyond.

“I’m convinced there are many people out there without the benefit of having been trained, or grew up in a poor environment — but are brilliant, and could accomplish great things in science if given a chance,” Lustig said. “With our community model, we think we could help people get into the lab with a low or no cost.”

The City of Carlsbad has been a key advocate of this project. Remarkably, it has leased a 6,000-square-foot building to Lustig and his associate Joseph Jackson, for $1 per year for five years. The building, which is right in the center of a cluster of some 200 life sciences companies in Carlsbad, was vacant for eight years until Lustig and Jackson proposed to use the space as a community biotech incubator.

Lustig said his goal is to help initiate eight new startup companies out of this community space by the end of 2014. He said he wants to keep basic lab space use free to independent “citizen scientists,” and as small companies begin to use the space, charge them a fee to keep the lab running.

For instance, if a researcher is able to generate enough data to apply for a government Small Business Innovation Research grant, Lustig said he’d charge the new company a portion of its grant money to continue working in the space.

“There’s been pent-up demand for a facility like this,” said Gavin Magnuson, a scientist living and working in Carlsbad who has plans to use the Bio, Tech and Beyond lab space to help launch his own company. “There are a lot of folks in my position who want to start their own shops, but it’s difficult to do when you’ve got a day job.”

Magnuson said that about 30 Carlsbad “citizen scientists” attended the first Bio, Tech and Beyond meeting — and many would plan on using the space on the weekends or in the evenings after work.

“It’s also a sticky wicket when you’re starting out a small biotech company,” he said. ‘it’s not like, say, a Silicon Valley type of operation where all you need is a computer — you need to have a space where you do intricate lab work. Equipment, chemicals: It’s much harder.”

Accepting Donations of Equipment

Indeed, there’s more to building a community lab space than just having a physical space. The areas have to be brought up to code, and laboratory equipment is extremely expensive.

“We’ve been asking people to donate equipment and chemicals, and the response has been overwhelming — we have enough equipment to fill the entire space,” Lustig said. “We have equipment that would enable anyone to do almost any basic life science experiment.”

Lustig and Jackson are soliciting donations from area companies, asking for old or little-used laboratory equipment. Lustig said he’s working out a deal with Life Technologies Corp., for instance, in which the biotech giant would donate chemicals that are near their expiration date but still usable.

Jackson is a tried hand at this process, having started a similar lab space in the Bay Area called BioCurious. He said that project is still working out its kinks, and there’s still a long road ahead yet to make Bio, Tech and Beyond financially feasible.

“It’s challenging to open up any new effort like this, when the infrastructure is still being built out — so we’re looking for courageous people to try and build it with us,” Jackson said. “It’s not going to be a full-service lab, and it’s not going to be easy. Everyone’s in the same boat, bootstrapping it together.”

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