With a long tradition of hands-on learning, MIT is home to many makerspaces, and the Huang-Hobbs BioMaker Space in Building 26 is one of the newest. Completed in early 2020, the biological engineering and chemical engineering makerspace was the brainchild of “a few exceptionally motivated undergraduates who were ready to charge forward with their own ideas,” says lab manager Justin Buck PhD ’12. “Some of them wanted to start companies, needed research space to make that happen, and weren’t going to take no for an answer.”
These students, organized under the banner of the MIT BioMakers Group, saw the need for an independent lab where they could pursue projects outside of the curricular setting without having to work around teaching schedules. “In the past,” explains Buck, “students with a big idea that they were hoping to explore or commercialize either had to go elsewhere to conduct their research or find a professor willing to adopt the project.”
A makerspace conceived by students
“There has never been a lab space at MIT with the sole purpose of enabling students to carry out independent project proposals in the life sciences,” says Oliver Dodd ’17, one of the founders of the BioMakers Group. “When we first started the group, the level of interest from students was striking. For me, it was a place that allowed me to carry out research I had been sitting on for years.” Dodd was interested in novel platelet-based cell therapies and went on to cofound a preclinical-stage biotechnology company.
Responding to student demand, in 2017 the Department of Biological Engineering sponsored a pilot of the BioMaker Space in its teaching lab. It was immediately embraced by students, but creating a dedicated makerspace for bioengineering projects was no small task. Biological and chemical research requires unique safety protocols and extended lab hours. “Biology sets the project schedule for you, not the other way around,” says Buck. “For an experiment, sometimes you need to be here for a few hours at a time, sometimes over a longer stretch.”
It quickly became clear that demand for the new lab would exceed the capacity of the pilot space. It was then that the Biological Engineering and Chemical Engineering Departments decided to partner together in the generation of a new makerspace. With lessons learned from MIT’s Project Manus, which has established other student-run makerspaces on campus and built maker communities around these spaces, the departments forged ahead. “Then everything lined up for the creation of this new space,” says Buck. “A location became available, and our donors generously stepped in to fund it.”
Donors envision a launching pad
Donors Pearl Huang ’80 and Peter Hobbs ’76, SM ’81, PhD ’85, who both have had highly successful careers in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, were inspired by this project, which unites their MIT majors, chemical engineering and biological engineering. But the driving force behind the gift is their belief in the potential of MIT students to change the world. “The one way to get good at innovation is to do it, again and again,” says Huang. “This facility will provide a place to test high-risk ideas in a low-risk environment. It will allow students to translate and test their ideas sooner rather than later, while they are still drinking from the MIT firehose.”
Huang and Hobbs also see this makerspace as a place where students can grow into their leadership capabilities by spearheading projects and having full ownership of any intellectual property developed using the facility. “Lots of people have great ideas, but there is still a lack of diversity in the founder and leadership communities of both of our industries. All MIT students have access to the Huang-Hobbs BioMaker Space, giving them a place to practice their passions. It is our hope that this will also enable valuable invention and open doors to the path of leadership,” says Huang.
Students are already hard at work in the space, where day-to-day activities range from one-day student workshops to longer-term research. “Students are the biggest proponents and their enthusiasm truly makes the BioMaker Space flourish,” says Jenny Gao ’22, co-chair of the MIT BioMakers Group. “Our current membership spans diverse majors and experience levels, from chemistry to computer science to physics majors, and from first-years to grad students.”
Microneedles and honey
One interesting student project involves fabricating Manuka honey microneedles. Microneedles can serve as drug-delivery devices, and Manuka honey is a natural product known to have antibacterial and immunostimulatory effects. Such microneedles simultaneously deliver drugs, stimulate wound healing, and reduce scar formation. “The BioMaker Space has all the equipment needed for us to test and perfect the fabrication process of various formulations of honey microneedles,” explains Gao. “We’re also able to conduct in vitro testing to better assess the properties of the honey microneedles and their effects on immune cells.” Gao and her team hope this research will lead to the discovery and development of a safer, more effective treatment for a wide range of medical conditions, such as multidrug-resistant surgical site infections.
Faculty members share the students’ enthusiasm. “It’s such a privilege to have biological engineering serve as a catalyst to bring together a community of researchers at the forefront of invention and creativity using biological systems to address societal needs,” says Angela Belcher, head of the Department of Biological Engineering and the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. “We look forward to offering access to laboratory resources, a range of programming, and a home to a community of enthusiastic BioMakers.”
Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and the David H. Koch Professor in Engineering, agrees. “One of my primary goals has been to ensure that all our students experience the most exciting aspect of our discipline: the opportunity to make real things that have the potential to change the world, “she says. “The BioMaker Space will be a critical component of this effort, giving students a safe place to explore their own ideas, be inspired by peers, and connect with the broader MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Buck sees great educational potential for students. “The idea that companies can come out of this is amazing,” he says. “But even if they don’t, students are learning about the independent research process and the path to commercialization. This may be the place where their first idea doesn’t work, but failures are stepping-stones to success.”
For project updates and event information, connect with the Huang-Hobbs BioMaker Space on Facebook. If you would like to arrange a tour or have questions about how to get involved, please contact Heather Upshaw.