Make-offs: DIY indie innovations

Make-offs: DIY indie innovations

Dale has a piece for his O’Reilly Radar column on what he’s dubbed “make-offs,” low-budget knock-offs of scientific and industrial technology, built with off-the-shelf parts:

It is a version of what China has been doing to America, benefiting from the R&D that goes into refining the specifications, developing prototypes and building a finished product. Only now, with new digital fabrication techniques and open source hardware and software, individuals and small companies are in a position to compete globally with a distinctly DIY approach to innovation. It’s a new independent source of creative work, similar to what indie films are to Hollywood films developed in-house. It’s open, collaborative and done on the cheap. And almost anyone can play, as you can see this weekend at the 5th Annual Maker Faire Bay Area.

Here’s an excerpt:


Tito Jankowski is one of the organizers of the DIYbio community and he’s trying to make the field of biotechnology accessible to amateurs as well. He thinks anyone should be able to look at their DNA. You can start by swabbing saliva from inside your mouth and then look at it in a small, home-based lab. His small San Francisco-based company, Pearl Biotech, is starting to develop some of the equipment you’d need. The Pearl Gel Box, a gel electrophoresis system, is based on an open-source hardware design, like many of these projects, which means that the specifications are open and shared publicly. Anyone could use these specifications to build their own version of this equipment and customize it for a specific application. Or you can buy the Pearl Gel box in versions from $189 to $500, depending on how much assembly you’re willing to do yourself. Commercial versions cost more than $1,000 but most importantly, their producers don’t expect anyone but scientists or technicians to be using them.

Who would have thought that there were people like Eri Gentry anxious to join the DIYbio community? Admittedly, she has no formal training as a scientist, having studied economics at college. When a friend of hers died of cancer, she became determined to participate in cancer research. She discovered how much she enjoyed doing the work so she built a low-cost biotech lab in her garage. Knowing that there’s only so much that she could do herself, she organized meetups and connected with others who were doing similar work around the world. A person she met online came from Ecuador to stay and work several weeks in her lab. She seeks to create a biotech hackerspace in the Bay Area called BioCurious where “professional scientists and the merely curious” can collaborate. Who would have thought it was even possible to do biotech in a garage, let alone that others were interested in doing the same thing?

Make-offs: DIY indie innovations

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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