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November 6, 2013


iGEM + DIYBIO logos

The International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM) is opening to DIY teams next year. It’s grown from a small experiment with 5 teams in 2004 to the largest community and conference of synthetic biologists in the world (with over 200 teams competing in 2013). I’m on the organizing committee for the new track – the “Community Labs” track – and I’m terrifically excited about the opportunity the iGEM competition provides for growing DIYbio.

I was asked to make the announcement at the recent iGEM World Jamboree, and below you can read a rough transcript of what I said. But if you just want to details, here they are:

DIY teams:

  • get the physical biobrick parts kit (DNA of over 1000 standard biological parts)
  • pay the same fees (~$3000 + $450 / person)
  • need two “PI” leaders (anyone can be one)
  • need a legally-recognized company to host the team (start your own, or ask a public lab to host your team; the two PIs need to be part of the team company)
  • compete amongst other teams in the DIY track to win the track prize
  • compete amongst all the teams for other prizes, including the GRAND PRIZE
  • can have members of any age
  • can be any size

Running an iGEM project is a big job, there’s no doubt. But if you’re up to it, you can use the competition as a powerful organizing tool for recruiting talented scientists, engineers, artists, and biohackers to work together and as a motivating force to solicit funds from many different local and national donors.

If you’re interested in spending six months building and designing your own biological system with synthetic biology, think about starting or joining an iGEM team in 2014.

I’m planning on starting a San Francisco team, and I’m going to recruit from the local biohacker scene, as well as from the local biotechs, big internet companies, and research labs. I see iGEM as a beautiful way to bring together really smart people to figure out and do DIY synthetic biology.

For more info, look on the list for iGEM threads or leave comments below. You can also email if you have specific comments or questions for the organizers.

Good luck!

(I gave shortened version of this talk (7 min in) at the iGEM 2013 Jamboree, excited and out of breath after sprinting over from the middle of a judging meeting. Not the pomp and circumstance I was hoping for – but it is more fitting for DIY I think.)

Hi everyone. First, I want to applaud all your amazing work engineering and building biological systems here in iGEM. It’s simply amazing. So. I’m Mac Cowell and terrifically excited to announce a new iGEM track – the iGEM Community Labs track. But before I give you the details, I’d like to just talk for a moment about how iGEM and DIYbio relate from my perspective.

iGEM is an engine for innovation, like the scientific academy and the free market. But in addition to the accolades of scientific publishing and the economic rewards of the free markets, the real motive force that energizes synthetic biology innovation in iGEM is powered by a simple desire by the participants to “push the technology” as far as possible – and to HAVE FUN. This is an intrinsic and separate motivation but just as a valid and important as a wish to advance science or make millions.

Innovating for the sake of innovation itself is an incredibly powerful force, and it’s what excites me – and you – about the opportunity iGEM offers to “push the envelope” of biological technology.

The worldwide community of “amateur biologists”, biohackers, citizen scientists, or otherwise “non-institutional scientists” are motivated in the same way. They want to push the envelope of biological technology. They want to, in general, increase the power of an individual to understand biological systems – “to understand things” – and to prototype biological designs – *to build things*. They ask why the tools we use as biological engineers – protocols and equipment and organisms and genes – are the way they are, and perhaps not simpler, less expensive, or just easier.

Like iGEM, the worldwide biohacker community thinks outside the box and innovates for the sake of innovation.

I was once an iGEM participant – in 2005. Over the following years, the I was continually amazed by the innovation at the edges of synthetic biology that iGEM stimulated. And most surprising of all, it was being done by you – undergraduates. Not teams of PhDs working for academic fame. Not companies motivated by profits. By you iGEM youngsters, driven by the simple obsession of inventing something *new*.

So in 2008, inspired by the community of iGEM biohackers – those kids inventing for invention’s sake, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with synthetic biology – I coined a phrase with my friend Jason Bobe in an attempt to name the community with similar ideals outside of iGEM. We named it “diybio”. That name was a pebble at the top of a mountain. And over the last 5 years, it seems to have caused a landslide. But the two of us just gave it it’s first little push.

But despite their fundamental alignment, the diybio & iGEM communities have not formally intersected – until now.

In 2014, DIY teams operating their own labs are invited to participate in iGEM. The fees will be the same as for other teams – roughly $3000 to register and $450 per participant going to the Jamboree. DIY teams will receive the part distribution and will compete with other DIY teams in the track, as well as being eligible for awards from the other iGEM tracks as well as the grand prize. In other words, a DIY team, like the teams in the other tracks, could be the ultimate winner of the competition. DIY teams are required to have two leaders – or “PIs” – who do not have to be accredited scientists, but who do need to be listed as managers or leaders of the company that runs the teams lab space.

If a team wants to form a new lab, that’s fine – they’ll just need to create an LLC or C-corp or other legal entity as an umbrella for their activities. Or they can ask members of an existing organization to act as the PIs of the team. Importantly, these PIs and the associated legal entity are what become responsible for the activities and behavior of the team – not the iGEM organization.

iGEM requires a large investment in time and money to participate, but its format as annual competition actually facilitates fundraising, recruitment, and general motivation to do something BIG. It provides a compelling vehicle to organize a team, a lab, and get a project done on time. Having observed the competition grow from 13 teams in 2005 to over 200 teams in 2013, I’ve noticed time after time how much easier it is for teams to raise money when they tell donors “we need this money to win! support us and the local community,” instead of “we need this money to do our science project – please support us and science!”.

In my opinion, the new DIY track could stimulate many new community labs and teams to form with great benefits to the diybio community.

Anyone can start a team, and for you, I have two critical suggestions. As the leader of the team, you’ll have two main jobs in the beginning, just like a CEO: 1) recruiting awesome teammates, and 2) raising money to support the team.

Start with recruitment first. Put together a talk or presentation about what iGEM is and why you’re excited about participating, then go to your local communities that might have awesome people interested in helping, and get them excited! Go to local biotech companies, research labs, retiree communities, schools, museums, hackathons, lightning talks, science nights, and any other venue you think might be a filter for smart, capable, motivated people interested in biohacking. You can use iGEM to build an amazing local team of talented scientists and engineers.

Once the team starts to come together, do the same roadshow at local businesses, asking for sponsorship. Tell them you’ll put their logo all over your tshirts and website etc. Try to get some grants from the city. Ask for $1000 from the

DIY iGEM teams in 2014 are a huge opportunity to build the strength and reach of DIYbio everywhere. I encourage you all to consider starting teams and using iGEM as a focal point for getting great people and real money involved in DIYbio.

More details about participating will be available at in 2014. In the meantime, please direct any questions or comments to

Get excited!
Mac Cowell

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