The Community Labs Built on Silicon Valley’s Junk

Trash from biotech startups are citizen scientists’ treasure

OOne Saturday in August 2018, Patrik D’haeseleer raced down to Silicon Valley with two other members of Counter Culture Labs, a community science lab and maker space in Oakland, California. D’haeseleer and other scientists around the Bay Area had heard that the controversial blood-testing company Theranos, once the unicorn biotech startup of the Valley, was liquidating its assets to pay off creditors. There was a rumor going around that local community laboratories and other nonprofits might be invited to help Theranos rid itself of its wares.

The rumor turned out to be true.

D’haeseleer and his companions pulled up to the sprawling Theranos campus in Palo Alto to grab whatever they could use in their community labs.

Glassware on a shelf at Bio-Link Depot.

The company’s warehouse was mostly filled with single-use laboratory supplies, like pipette tips and test tubes. D’haeseleer and his crew took a load of them back to Counter Culture Labs, where citizen scientists trying to develop a cheaper form of insulin and make vegan cheese out of yeast would put them to good use. Theranos was also getting rid of a few larger pieces of equipment, like centrifuges and DNA imaging stations.

“Obviously there was this great sense of irony. They blew through billions of dollars of funding,” D’haeseleer says, recounting the moment.

“At least some of it was going to a good cause,” he says with a chuckle.

CCounter Culture, which provides laboratory access to communities typically underrepresented in the STEM fields — people of color, people from low-income communities, and people without college educations — is one of many institutions that were tipped off about the Theranos liquidation by a mass email sent by Bio-Link Depot, a nonprofit in East Oakland that redistributes new and used biotech equipment and supplies to community labs and public schools.

These institutions are often poorly funded and can’t afford to buy such expensive supplies. Community labs like Counter Culture, and its sister lab BioCurious in Santa Clara, raise money through membership dues and small donors. Counter Culture occasionally waives dues for those who can’t afford to pay. The Oakland Unified School District, another institution Bio-Link Depot supports, suffered $20.2 million in budget cuts last year. Each year, Bio-Link hosts several “Open House” days for East Bay public school teachers to gather supplies for their classrooms.

“I am trying to get all of the science equipment out to make science more diverse,” says Natoya Lee, the organization’s Depot coordinator. The supplies that Bio-Link provides to science educators, she says, determine whether many kids get a real lab experience or learn science from a book.

Bio-Link Depot gets most of its equipment from biotech companies that are either going out of business, like Theranos, or established companies like Gilead, Novartis, and Roche that are looking to get rid of old equipment when they upgrade or move. It also collects used equipment from major research institutions in the Bay Area, like the University of California, San Francisco and the University of California, Berkeley.

The Bio-Link Depot warehouse is nestled in the back of an East Oakland industrial park with a few other businesses that specialize in recycling or upcycling consumer and industrial goods. It’s in a part of Oakland that’s majority Black and Latinx, where the median household income is just under $50,000. Even at the highest performing schools in the area, more than 90% of the students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged by the California Department of Education’s standards.

“Obviously there was this great sense of irony. They blew through billions of dollars of funding.”

To remain open, Bio-Link sells larger, more sophisticated equipment — like biosafety cabinets and incubators — to startups and university professors at a discount. Those appliances are in lower demand because high school science classes don’t use them; schools and community labs were instead in need of consumables like test tubes, glassware, pipettes and pipette tips, gloves and goggles.

The Depot began at the City College of San Francisco in 2002 as part of Bio-Link, a national organization that promotes access to biotechnology education, becoming an independent nonprofit in 2015. Now, Lee runs the warehouse: Her office is tucked away in a corner and enclosed by a mesh cage—separating her from about 100 wire racks piled high with biotech equipment and supplies.

Giving a tour of the warehouse, she taps her freshly painted nails on a donated biosafety cabinet. “You would think that they want the new, nice one, but they believe that the older ones are the best quality.” She bangs her hand against another one that she says is 35 years old.

Lee, an Oakland native, has a background in the sciences. She studied science at Laney, a local community college, and started her career working in forensic science. She still lives in Oakland and has two children in the city’s public school system.

Lee’s children are growing up in the shadow of Silicon Valley, a global hub of tech and science innovation that is largely made up of white people. The Black and Latinx communities—of which her children are a part—often don’t see the financial or educational benefits reaped by startups and tech giants across the Bay. By moving equipment and supplies from these wealthy companies into the hands of the under-resourced, Lee is trying to change that.

“I think putting this equipment in front of those students in those schools that don’t have the same amount of access as the richer students is going to make tech and biotech more diverse,” she says.

ItIt isn’t just kids who benefit from Silicon Valley’s trash. Erica Sanchez, a new professor in cell biology at San Francisco State University, relied on equipment from Bio-Link Depot to get her lab running.

Sanchez says she’s “just trying to use her funding wisely.” San Francisco State, where the majority of students are people of color, has far fewer financial resources than majority-white UCSF, where Sanchez studied and worked as a postdoctoral scholar. Bio-Link depot gave her free single-use plastic items, as well as a discounted biosafety cabinet, incubators, centrifuges, and fridges that she says were “crucial” and saved her “a few thousand dollars.”

A stack of test tubes that Bio-Link Depot got from failed biotech startup Theranos, which was liquidating their equipment and supplies to pay off creditors in August 2018.

These recycled items, she adds, helped her stay environmentally conscious. “We need to take advantage of things that are already out there. I think that’s important for all of us to do, and Bio-Link Depot is providing a place to do that.”

“It was a jackpot for us for sure,” Sanchez says. “It basically made my lab go from an empty space to something that has potential to be working much faster than I anticipated.”

Back at Counter Culture, the consumable lab supplies from the Theranos haul join a vast array of equipment, most of it donated from Bio-Link Depot. The wall shelves and cabinets are donations as well.

“It’s easier to say what stuff we haven’t gotten from Bio-Link,” D’haeseleer says.

Over the years, Bio-Link has provided him and his team with a biosafety cabinet for culturing plant tissue, an ultra-low-temperature freezer for storing chemicals, thermal cyclers to study DNA, and centrifuges for separating substances. The community lab recently got a high-performance liquid chromatography machine from the Depot, but they haven’t figured how to work it yet.

Silicon Valley might see these machines as junk, but to the people living in tech’s shadow, they’re rare gateways to opportunity.

“It’s amazing that we have this sort of ecosystem here in the Bay Area,” D’haeseleer says. “And if Bio-Link Depot wasn’t there, most of that stuff would just go straight to the dump.”

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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