Greentown Labs’ 26-bench wet lab is home to startups creating everything from long-duration energy storage to energy-efficient manufacturing membranes to silk coatings that extend the freshness of produce and proteins.
The 1,800-square-foot, BSL-2 space is located right next to Greentown’s prototyping lab space, allowing for innovations both inside and outside the wet lab. Greentown provides equipment, manages the lab, and perhaps most importantly, encourages scientists to share ideas and knowledge.
Let’s start broadly. For people who don’t know what a wet lab is, how would you describe it?
It’s a space that has been engineered and built to support the use of hazardous chemical and biological materials, so that you’re protecting your samples, but you’re also protecting the people working with those samples and the people outside of the lab who never want to be exposed to those things.
You spent over 10 years as a bench scientist—could you speak about that experience?
I worked in a lab at Harvard with Wendy Garrett. Wendy was a postdoc who was researching the gut and gut/host microbiome interactions—specifically in Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, and colorectal cancer. I started with her as a research assistant. She was offered a professorship at Harvard, and so when she started her lab I went with her, and I became responsible for essentially building the operations of the lab.
That’s where things went from, “Oh, I really like bench science”—which I was still doing—to, “Oh, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes on behind the scenes here.” It became more interesting to me and more fulfilling to me to know that I was influencing the successful work of multiple scientists, instead of just my own. That’s where my interest in lab management was born.
Drawing on that background, what’s unique about what a shared lab like this offers versus if each startup was running their own lab?
Aside from the resources we have, and the important fact that we have co-located prototyping and wet lab space in the same building, I think what’s really fun is the geography of the lab. At one bench you might have a plant biologist, right next to them is a physicist, and behind them might sit a chemist, a materials scientist, and a microbiologist. The variety in that space is really incredible, and it offers an opportunity for people to bounce ideas off of each other in a way that I never saw in academia.
It’s a very friendly environment—nobody in that space is too busy to take a minute to talk to the people around them, and unlike in academia where things can get competitive, everyone in the wet lab and outside the wet lab is here for the common goal: the environment, to save the planet. So I think that makes the community so unique—which is really heartwarming to see.
What are some examples of this collaboration?
The sharing of equipment would be the first thing up there. We’re talking about startups, who can’t always afford the newest and shiniest pieces of equipment, but their willingness when they do buy a piece of equipment to share it with the people around them is really wonderful. Cambridge Crops needed a plate reader, and as soon as they brought it in, they said, “Hey, we’d love to let other people use it.” That’s a $6,000 piece of equipment that now everybody else has access to.
Meghan Powers from Kula Bio was doing something where she needed to make an acid bath, which is not in her wheelhouse, she’s not a chemist. But we had a member from Via Separations who came over and was like, this is how I do it, this is how you set it up, these are the things you need to be worried about. They care about each other in this space—it’s awesome when you see it happen.
What are some things that you take care of for the wet lab scientists?
A lot of these companies are on a pretty strict budget, so I try to help them find the best use of their space. I also use my past experience and all the vendors I used to work with to help our members source products or specific pieces of equipment from a reliable partner at a reasonable price.
Then, of course, there’s the equipment that we receive from our strategic partners. When we can collaborate with our partners to bring equipment into the lab that’s out of reach for our members, that’s a huge win for us.
And then there’s our safety program. A big part of our safety program is ensuring that not only are the companies safe here, but we want them to learn the behind-the-scenes portion of what we do to make sure they’re safe—with policies, but also in terms of what it takes to get a permit, what that process looks like, so that when they leave they’re not completely blindsided. Part of what I do is help them grow as companies—at least share my experience, tips, and tricks that I’ve learned, so they don’t either make the same mistakes or reinvent the wheel when they grow out of Greentown Labs and need to build their own space.
What are some of the ways that Greentown members work across the wet lab and the prototyping lab?
Via Separations does the more chemically intensive work in the wet lab, but then actually test their membranes in a larger format out in the prototyping lab.
Cambridge Crops has a really interesting setup. Most of what they do in the wet lab is isolating the protein they use from silk, but out in the prototyping lab they have two spaces. One’s the environmental testing chamber, basically a walk-in refrigerator, so they can look at things you would generally keep refrigerated, like protein sources, and they have prototyping space where they actually coat a lot of their produce. So they don’t have to transfer their material from a wet lab somewhere across the city to another facility where they do the coating—it’s literally across the hall.
View a list of wet lab members as of January 2020 here.
Greentown Labs is a community of bold, passionate entrepreneurs creating solutions for today’s biggest climate and environmental challenges. Located in Somerville, Mass., Greentown Labs is the largest cleantech incubator in North America, operating a 100,000 sq. ft. campus comprised of prototyping and wet lab space, shared office space, a machine shop, electronics lab, and a curated suite of programs and resources. Greentown Labs is home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 250 since its inception.