Work space

Houston scientist creates a DIY lab concept for flexible and efficient work

The DIY lab, called the eVOLVER, costs $2,000 less than a comparable setup. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Every scientist needs his or her own space, and each discipline calls for different types of tools and space requirements. Caleb Bashor, a professor at Rice University, along with seven colleagues, created a DIY lab to further research efforts based at the university.

Stemming from the need of a more customized study, Bashor and his team created a setup that combines the control of automated cell-culturing systems that can run continuously for months with the scale of high-throughput systems that grow dozens of cultures at once, according to a news release issued by Rice University.

The DIY lab, eVOLVER, comprises three modules: a customizable "smart sleeve" housing and interface for each culture vessel, a fluidic module that controls movement of liquid in and out of each culture vessel, and a modular hardware infrastructure that simplifies high-volume bi-directional data flow by decoupling each parameter into individual microcontrollers.

"The prototype 16-chamber version of eVOLVER described in the new paper cost less than $2,000, cheaper than what a lab might pay for a single continuous culture bioreactor," Bashor says in the release.

Bashor, who has been at the university since 2017, has worked in science for 15 years and received his post doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he met many of his colleagues that collaborated on eVOLVER.

"If you don't have something to do the job in the lab, you go and you build it," says Bashor. "It might take a few rounds of building and rebuilding, but eventually you get around to having it be something that gives you what you want. In this case, it's something a lot of different academic labs want now, we have actually given this out to dozens of labs."

The DIY initiative has made waves throughout the Rice student body, Bashor shares with InnovationMap. One graduate student, Brandon Wong, tasked to help with the project has shared a how-to for the DIY lab online.

"It's a basic research tool, it's exciting," says Bashor. It's something that can be leveraged for a lot of great research projects inside of the university."

Bashor and his team in the bioengineering department support lead cellular and biomolecular engineering research, which led them to create the lab.

"We turned to DIY electronics and we decided to build it ourselves," Bashor tells InnovationMap. "The process took about three years. We had to learn all of the tools that were out there for doing DIY work and a lot of these tools have showed up in the last ten years."

Rice University's department of bioengineering is a member of the Texas Medical Center and hosts interdisciplinary training programs at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine, according to the school's website.

"This is one of the biggest centers in the world for immunotherapy, particularly clinical immunotherapy, and so we're working with people who do immunotherapy using my special engineering techniques, which mostly involve engineering the way that cells behave to try to more effectively kill cancer," says Bashor.

Caleb Bashor and his associates created the lab. Photo courtesy of Rice University

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.