Indie science

Ethan O. Perlstein

Transitioning to scientific independence from the tribal world of government-sponsored biomedical research is not easy. The stars have to align in your personal life. For example, having a supportive spouse who will quit their job and move across the country with you. Alas, searing curiosity alone cannot pay the bills. You’ll need a day job, or better yet a complementary, part-time consulting gig that leaves you enough time to do professional-grade science. Even after all that, you’ll still need a place to do the experiments – and of course a way to pay for it.

When I began my search for lab space in earnest at the end of April, I didn’t think I’d find a turnkey option that was not only yeast-friendly but also in biking distance of my Oakland abode. I dutifully put out the word on my lab website, made lots of cold calls, and reversed course at several cul-de-sacs. Luckily, it all paid off: yesterday I signed a short-term lease on a space in Berkeley!

This quest for a bench began with leads that I had rounded up before I even touched down in the Bay Area. Now keep in mind that I don’t need an entire lab, just enough bench space to conduct genetic and chemical screens with yeast cells. I don’t need core facilities or expensive, esoteric instrument. The experiments I’ve planned require consumables, reagents that are standard fare in any modern molecular biology lab, and experiments that I can’t do for lack of expertise or equipment I’ll outsource on a fee-for-service basis. I also don’t need employees, as I’ll be doing most of the experiments myself; nor a grant, as I’ll be self-funding this initial foray. (Fear not: a post dedicated to funding is in the works).

At one extreme is the biohacker/DIY bio option, e.g., BioCurious. At the other extreme is the biotech incubator option, e.g., QB3. Neither is the best fit for me right now. I admire the hacker ethos, but BioCurious is primarily serving hobbyists and fledgling scientists as opposed to professionally trained scientists. QB3 is primarily incubating life science startups up to 5 team members. Right now Perlstein Lab is just yours truly, and I want to retain this flexibility as I continue to seek out partners and patrons for a rare disease Moon Shot.

So I kept sleuthing, and received feedback from unexpected sources. For example, Kevin Lustig, the founder of Assay Depot, noticed my query from a LinkedIn share and suggested that I cold call local contract research organizations (CROs) to find out if any of them would sublease space to me. I reached out to a dozen or so CROs that seemed to fit my specs but these leads all came up empty. Then one day I got an email from Pia Abola, whom I’d never met. She used to work at an independent institute affiliated with UC Berkeley. She said based on my description her old lab might be a good fit.

So that very day I sent an email to the director of this institute, which is called VTT/MSI Molecular Sciences Institute (hereafter just MSI). As I wrote above, it’s a turnkey lab, which means fully stocked with the exact common equipment that I need for yeast work. I’d have to pay a premium for turnkey, more than double what QB3 charges for comparable albeit completely empty bench. In spite of the higher rent, another factor weighed in my decision: time. At QB3 I’d have to sign a one-year lease, and communal equipment would be hit or miss. Whereas at MSI I could start with a short-term lease. Besides, the $900 – $1,000 per month that QB3 charges startups at, say, the East Bay Innovation Center would quickly balloon with the cost of basic equipment like pipettors, which I’d be responsible for purchasing.

With a tentative lease agreement in hand, the next step in the process proved to be the most challenging – finding liability insurance. It’s been a wild goose chase. I know I’m at the leading edge because underwriters at popular insurance companies, e.g. Farmers or State Farm, won’t cover independent scientists. Practically speaking, I squandered my first leads not knowing exactly how to describe myself or my situation. After each decline though, insurance brokers offered parting sage advice on what to say and what not to say the next time.

If you’re considering going down the independent scientist path, know that when dealing with insurance brokers, refer to yourself as a one-person startup or a sole proprietor. Tell the broker you’re looking for commercial liability for “premises and ops.” In terms of liability caps, MSI and probably any other laboratory landlord want $1MM. As a result, my monthly premium will be higher than typical renter’s insurance.

So…what projects will I be working on? I gave a preview of some of the experiments I’ll be doing in the form of an open proposal in early May. I’m still integrating all the helpful comments, which are spread out on my lab website, Facebook and Twitter. A new post will be the first order of business next week, after I complete safety training, etc. Ever in the spirit of Open Science, I will be broadcasting my scientific method live, trying my best to follow in the footsteps of open lab notebook pioneers like Rosie Redfield, Anthony Salvagno, and an old grad school friend and newly minted assistant professor Greg Lang.

As an early adopter of the independent scientist model, I don’t pretend to have all the answers or a crystal ball. But I take inspiration from independent scientists who have tinkered and explored for centuries outside universities long before the Academia-Pharma Complex began to crowd them out since 1945. More and more unabsorbed academic trainees will go indie over a second postdoc. Same goes for all the downsized Pharma scientists.