Based in Shepherd’s Bush, Open Cell provides an innovative and inexpensive space for biotechnology and design companies who are in the early stage of development. It has only been open six months and has already increased its space by 150%, indicating that Open Cell is addressing a real need for startup space in central London.

The brainchild of Tom Meany and Helene Steiner, Open Cell takes the form of 45 shipping containers that house laboratory and studio space, alongside more communal areas for networking and events. The project was inspired or maybe necessitated by the challenge faced by Tom and Helene in finding space for their own start-up Cell Free that is developing a means to test a DNA circuit more quickly than traditional methods and without laboratory infrastructure. As such they have a first-hand understanding of the needs of their tenants.

“We found it incredibly difficult to find space for our own start-up,” said Tom. “So Open Cell was driven by our own desire to find space, but also a realisation that this can be a real barrier to small talented early stage companies who just need basic premises from which to start. More than half of emerging biotech startups come from outside university tech-transfer channels and these businesses have to choose between empty labs, costing tens of thousands to equip, or expensive university facilities. Open Cell exists to fill to that gap.”

The space and its occupants

Currently Open Cell has one shared laboratory and they have also built bespoke laboratories for tenants, creating 450 square feet of laboratory space. Each container provides 150 square feet of space and tenants can have one container or link them together. Glass-fronted, the containers provide an excellent showcase for the range of start-ups that are working here.

An increasing number of life sciences start-ups are joining the space. Cell Free is already established there and Nanovery is a recent addition who are working on nanorobots to revolutionise how the world diagnoses diseases and enables precision medicine. There is also Purius who have developed a technology to improve the efficiency and costs of the purification process of pharmaceuticals and My Personal Therapeutics is planning to house its first lab at Open Cell to develop personalised therapy for cancers based on genetic sequencing.

“We believe in Open Cell’s motto of lowering the barrier of entry for biotech,” says Mun Ching Lee, Co-founder and CEO of Nanovery and part of the Entrepreneur First programme. “There are fewer startups in the biotech area compared to other sectors because biolabs and specialist equipment is scarce, expensive, and often inaccessible to non-academics. Thanks to Open Cell, we are able to focus our resources on building our solutions instead of sourcing equipment and space.”

Alongside these life science tenants are a range of other start-ups working in areas such as wastewater treatment, sustainable building materials and smart cosmetics.

Solution focused lab design

Both founders have worked at the intersection of design and science and Open Cell introduces design early on in the development of its laboratories. Unlike traditional approaches where labs are built according to previous layouts without necessarily thinking about how best to use the space, Open Cell delve into the requirements of their tenants to make their container (or containers) fit for purpose and within budget. To do this they work with Biotop, an Austrian science collective who specialise in modular lab design.

This solution focussed approach to developing the space fits well with the mindset of their tenants who tend not to be in the traditional pipeline of academic research that has spun out into product development. Those at Open Cell are individuals or teams who start with a problem and then apply biotechnology along with other techniques to solve it.  By taking this disruptive approach to building the labs, Open Cell hopes to nurture a creative environment where labs can be built quickly and efficiently. Indeed the launch event at Open Cell was entitled ‘How to build a bio-lab in ten days.’

“Shipping containers are the ideal starting point since they are readily available, easily moved and have a long history of multifunctional use,” says Tom. “They provide a flexible testbed where innovative lab designs can be rapidly installed and tested.”

“More and more we are seeing industry incorporating biotechnology into its products and innovations to address important problems. We hope that our space will help those working at the early stage who need an initial space in which to prototype, creating a hub of creativity and diversity.”

The Open Cell initiative is supported by U+i group, a property developer specialising in regeneration, SynbiCITE the UK’s synthetic biology industry and engineering biology industrial accelerator, and the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

Open Cell is based in the Old Laundry Yard, Shepherds Bush Market, W12 8EZ, walking distance from Goldhawk Lane tube station and Shepherd’s Bush tube station.