In conversation with BioArt Laboratories
Context: Biodesign, Biomaterials, and Bioart–fields emerging rapidly, at the intersection of nature, technology, and creativity–are often confined to the insides of laboratories, and within reach of only select professionals, researchers and educators. The broader public has limited direct exposure to these fields–which undoubtedly hold the key to our future.
On the other hand, even emerging innovators in these fields, across the globe, are struggling to find adequate support–both resources and infrastructure–needed to advance their work.
In focus: BioArt Laboratories
Keeping this context in mind, it becomes clear that the work that BioArt Laboratories does is remarkable. The Eindhoven, Netherlands-based organization performs multiple roles, the most prominent of which is as incubator and launch-pad–providing a platform and environment for innovators to experiment and develop their ideas for bio-based design and biomaterials. Founded by Jalila Essaïdi, an artist, innovator and entrepreneur herself (with inventions such Spider-silk based skin and successful bio-based start-ups such as Mestic under her belt), BioArt Laboratories facilitates entrepreneurship and innovation, both through its internal infrastructure and its vast external network.
Unlike other organizations working in cutting edge bio-based innovation, BioArt has found a way to make its work accessible to the broader public, in comprehensive, fascinating and interactive ways.
Through its interactive talks, workshops, experiential exhibits at forums such as Dutch Design Week, and initiatives such as ‘Open Stadslabs’ and ‘Curiocity Labs,' BioArt engages actively with the public–its local community in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands and beyond. Suddenly, innovations such as luminous bacteria (Image up top) or bioplastics created from manure (Mestic) are not a distant idea that people are simply informed or educated about, but one that they can interface with directly, offer feedback and reactions to, and whose future they can help visualize through the efforts of BioArt Laboratories.
Recently, we spoke with BioArt Laboratories' director Jalila Essaïdi, about the motivations for her unique organization, and the many exciting initiatives, and innovations that are emerging from BioArt and its resident innovators this year.
MD: Jalila, what has been the strongest impetus for starting BioArt Laboratories?
Jalila: While nature has been evolving, and thus improving itself over the past 3.8 billion years, mankind only started developing technologies about 10,000 years ago. Relatively recently, scientists, innovators, and others have discovered that there is a lot to be learned from nature. In this case, learning is more like copying: What works in nature, and how can we apply that to improve our lives? That is basically what biomimicry is all about.
There are multiple examples where mankind has developed techniques that stem directly from the animal world. Scientists are presently trying to copy the extremely flexible octopus arm. This can be very useful in internal operations whereby the medical instruments have to reach certain organs without damaging other organs or nerves.
Without detectable forms of communication, ants have developed techniques to ‘air-condition’ their nests with a constant flow of air through their corridors. If we manage to copy that technology, we might be able to build cities free of pollution owed to clean air being sucked in and car fumes, etc. ventilated out.
To conclude: nature is the inspiration for what we do at BioArt Laboratories. Nature provides us with the building blocks with which we can make further developments for the future.
MD: Part of BioArt Laboratories, is your Materials Bank. What goes into this bank?
Jalila: In search of the most exciting and new biocompatible materials worldwide, BioArt Laboratories decided to start its own library for materials, the 'Materialenbank.' This library is a way to store a fragile collection of bio-based materials. The ‘Materialenbank’ is still in a relatively early stage but is regularly updated with new materials and applications. Some of the bacteria in the ‘Materialenbank’ need a special environment to keep them alive such as freezers set to -80 degrees centigrade, refrigerators, incubators, marshland, forest, etc. Examples of unique materials that you can find in our ‘Materialenbank’ are Halo bacteria, Slime mold, and Luminous bacteria.
MD: You are strategically located in Eindhoven–a hub for tech and design innovation. Why is Eindhoven such a nucleus of activity? And how is BioArt Laboratories contributing to it?
Jalila: The simple answer would be one word: Philips. The reorganization of technology company Philips in the 90’s–a shift of manufacturing overseas, and the move of its division headquarters from Eindhoven to Amsterdam–could be likened to the creation of a whale carcass, forming a complex ecosystem around it and giving rise to several new multinationals. This, combined with our appreciation of talent is the key to success for this region. Eindhoven is one of the leading ‘Global Cities of Talent’ and ranks among the top ten with cities such as Paris and Berlin.
The most important success factor for a region like Eindhoven is the presence of enough talent, and it recognizes the need for Bright Talents* to consolidate its position and growth as THE region of creative innovation. Eindhoven is always aiming to attract and maintain both international talent and the local talent in the area. The positioning of BioArt Laboratories in this ecosystem is essential, to turn local talent into the next generation of Bright Talents*.
*Bright Talent–a term used to describe so-called 'whole brain thinkers,' located at the intersection of the left and right hemispheres. They are therefore creative and technologically well-educated.
Here are links to a few articles that provide context to the history and future of Eindhoven as a region of innovation:
MD: Tell us about the role you play as partners for the Bio Art and Design Award (BADaward). Why is this award pivotal, you think, for today’s emerging professionals?
Jalila: First of all, I want to tell you in short what the BADaward is. The BAD Award is an international competition that aims to encourage young artists to experiment with biological materials and collaborate with renowned Dutch research groups. Both Dutch and international talents are stimulated to experiment with bio-art and design, as well as to collaborate with acknowledged Dutch science centers. The most promising and innovative ideas are rewarded with a prize of €25000.
As one of the partners, BioArt Laboratories is in charge of the application system and can provide rising talents with the support and contacts they need. This is so important because the innovative ideas of these artists and designers will transform the lives of people. In addition to the research groups they are partnered with, they can also develop their ideas further with our facilities and with the support of our specialist staff. They will have access to the resources and support I had, as a former BAD-Award winner myself, and now director of BioArt Laboratories. All this encourages them to explore cutting edge technology, design, and creativity in search of new opportunities.
MD: Through workshops, exhibitions and talks, you have brought a new and very technical realm (Biodesign and Biomaterials) into easy reach for the public. What initiatives are on the cards this year? Are there more ‘Open Stadslabs’ (an interactive lecture series at BioArt) planned for the coming months?
Jalila: Yes, there are! This year we introduced a new series called ‘Curiocity Lab,' similar to the Open Stadslab. Through these events, we want to allow the public to reflect on and explore the relevance and acceptance of ideas from an evolving field of biotechnology and life sciences. Metamorphosis is this year’s overall theme, and the ‘Curiocity Labs’ will be stretched across several months, with a different aspect linked to the topic Metamorphosis at every meet.
During Dutch Design Week 2017 we will present an exhibition with the overall theme of Metamorphosis as well, and besides the exhibition, we will hold two interactive debates in collaboration with Barry Fitzgerald. Our aim is to introduce people to the relevant subjects of our rapidly changing society. Not by just providing information, but by involving them in the discussion.
MD: How do you think we can encourage more innovators and fresh graduates to begin the challenging but rewarding investigation of bio-based materials and methods?
Jalila: Encourage them to work hands-on with the materials. I hate work that sticks solely to utopian or dystopian concepts–“Leave the thinking till after you have experienced the materials”– is my belief. Let them get their hands dirty, let them feel the actual materials, and they will fall in love with them.
MD: What are the most exciting innovations that will emerge from members at BioArt Laboratories this year?
Jalila: Here are a few you would like to know about :
Fresh on sewage sludge
Shoes out of luminous bacteria
Some of these were spotted on camera, when not too long ago NTR’*s De Buitendienst visited BioArt Laboratories in the search for fashion items inspired by nature. “What can people learn from animals and plants?” was the question, and De Buitendienst investigated how ingenious nature is. See their broadcast at BioArt Laboratories here:
https://www.schooltv.nl/…/hoe-maak-je-lichtgevende-schoene…/ (Note: the broadcast is in Dutch).
*NTR is an independent Dutch public service broadcaster specializing in information, education, and culture.
MD: You partner with universities, non-profit organizations, industry companies and city agencies. How do some of these partnerships work?
Jalila: Each partnership we are engaging in is different from the other and always has another approach or diverse content. That makes every collaboration unique. For example, our partnership with the International School Eindhoven (ISE) is based on shared understanding and intentions regarding generating Bright Talents, and our cooperation to do so. BioArt Laboratories and ISE are working together to stimulate, inspire and facilitate young students. Other collaborations might deal with boosting the local economy or tackling social problems.
MD: With events at your location, and presence at forums such as Dutch Design Week, young innovators and the public have access to you in the Netherlands. Outside of the Netherlands, how do you interface with the public?
Jalila: In addition to the events and being present at Dutch Design Week, we are optimizing the use of our growing international network. We aim to draw from our project ‘Tree antenna’ for this, to create a genuinely living network with all our major partners. ‘Tree Antenna’ is a project that utilizes the sap-stream of a tree to amplify radio signals. Drawing from this idea, we create a world wide network that symbolically binds all parties interested in the crossover of technology, creative industry, and biotech. Our next 'antenna' will be placed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
MD: Thank you Jalila, for speaking with us!
Readers, If you would like to interface with BioArt Laboratories and their upcoming initiatives, here are few key dates to look out for:
September 18th: The opening of BioArt Laboratories’ New Location, and its Tree Antenna project
October 7th - Masterclass ‘Earth Matters’ by BioArt Laboratories at TextielMuseum, Tilburg
9 November - Masterclass ‘Earth Matters’ by BioArt Laboratories at TextielMuseum, Tilburg
Dutch Design Week 2017: BioArt Laboratories Exhibition and talks from 21 - 29 October
Starting September, Bio Art will also host ‘Curiosity Labs’