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Lab Spec & Insights

Last updated — July 2023 | I’m building a lab in Saint Louis, MO to run some experiments.

Introduction #

This is a living document. I’m using it to drop general tips and insights I’ve come across as I’m navigating the process of building out an independent lab to run my own experiments.

Here’s my current spec sheet. I’m working my way through acquiring what’s on the $50,000 budget sheet.

Many of the below tips have come from conversations with others who’ve done this in the past. Special thanks to John Schloendorn and Philip Goetz who’ve provided the bulk of the input. Some of their direct comments have been included in the quote blocks below.

General Insights #

  1. Thorough planning is necessary before setting up a biolab. Don’t just start buying equipment. Know what experiments you’ll be attempting to run first. Watch YouTube videos on how equipment works, especially for the specific models you’re considering buying. Marginal cost trade-offs can lead to huge trade-offs in terms of time cost and efficiency.
  2. Consider cost-effective alternatives for space such as rented storage cubes, as renting traditional lab space is often more costly. In Saint Louis, a basic space with limited shared equipment costs $2,000/mo.
  3. Setting up automated eBay searches can help you find equipment more efficiently than checking for new listings regularly.
  4. Don’t make stuff that you can buy! This obsession of biohackers with making centrifuges and PCR machines is dumb. Those are easy to get. FAR more useful and practical (and easy) to make your own biosafety cabinet or PCR hood. That’s about the only thing worth making yourself.

  5. Be mindful of the challenges associated with cell culture and storage.
  6. Be cautious about purchasing outdated equipment for which disposables are no longer available.
  7. Gaining visibility may attract government attention; take steps to reassure authorities about your activities.

    Call the local Sheriff early on and show him it’s not a drug lab.  Just so he knows when that inevitable tip comes in.

  8. Budget strategically, focusing on necessary equipment like PCR machines and electrophoresis and less on items like microscopes.

Equipment Insights #

  1. Aim to pay about 1-2% of the new list price for used equipment. You won’t always hit that range but I’ve quickly learned that lab equipment depreciates faster than a new car leaving the lot.
  2. Avoid specialty equipment, no matter how cheap. It will have limited information on how to use it and be expensive to repair.
  3. Paying a lot extra for equipment may be worth it if it lets you analyze smaller quantities, e.g. a Nanodrop.
  4. Check return policies, software requirements, user manuals, and licenses before purchasing equipment.

    ‘No returns’ is okay if the price is low enough. Most of the stuff sold by professional auctioneers that’s untested, works. They honestly don’t know how to test it. But do email them & tell them how to test it if it’s really simple. Sometimes they’ll offer to let you return it anyway if you ask BEFORE you buy.

  5. Save auction photos with the serial numbers for equipment to potentially download the software for free.
  6. Opt for durable analog equipment (1980s) over digital equivalents (1990s), with exceptions for advanced tech like qPCR and flow cytometry.
  7. A standard refrigerator for cooling samples may be a cheaper and safer alternative than a refrigerated centrifuge.

    You don’t need more than like 5% accuracy with centrifuge speed, and the digital stuff breaks in shipping, and can be unusable without software.

  8. The Stratagene Robocycler is the best PCR machine out there and is available on eBay for around $150.
  9. Purchase balances for under $500 from Amazon and if you need less than 10 mg, just make a dilution.
  10. The Thermo e-gel system pays for the cost of the pre-cast gels easily, by being zero-mess and zero-time. You only need the base unit, not the camera. A cell phone can take the image just fine. Again Thermo’s iBlot easily returns its consumable cost as time & mess saved, and then some.  Same for pre-cast protein gels. Make sure you understand the difference between DNA & Protein electrophoresis, and put them on the budget separately.

  11. Utilize the Henderson–Hasselbalch equation as a substitute for a pH meter.

Questions on any of the above or my experience doing this? Send me an email.