It was a move that had been stewing for the last three months. The media darling and cofounder of La Paillasse biohacklab in Paris has resigned, now replaced by Hacene Lahreche. For French fablabs, this change in direction marks the end of the “sandbox” era.
Hard to be more discreet… Thomas Landrain, the iconic founder of La Paillasse biohacklab, has resigned. This much was announced in the “word from the president” signed Hacene Lahreche on the lab’s new website: “I am succeeding him as president.” For eight years, Landrain conveyed his cooperative vision of open science and a citizen lab, from its beginning in a suburbian squat to its relocation into central Paris three years ago. For the past three months, the move had been stewing (and Makery had been investigating), but both La Paillasse and Landrain bought time in order to present a peaceful version of the transition.
For Lahreche, “Thomas had a unique voice, but everyone who contributes to La Paillasse has an important role, and he is still the administrator.” Same refrain for Marc Fournier, current treasurer and other cofounder of La Paillasse: “I’ve worked with Thomas for years, and without him La Paillasse wouldn’t be what it is today. Now we need to emphasize the image of the community.” Landrain himself offers two reasons for his resignation: “First, La Paillasse operates very well without me, and I’m less of a manager than someone who produces extension, R&D and prospective projects. Second, I want to realize my vision, which goes beyond La Paillasse, to connect scientific spaces.”
End of innocence for labs
While the new direction is assumed on both sides, it still marks the end of an era, the “sandbox” for labs, as Landrain calls it. It’s the end of innocence and emergence of these third-spaces that have paved the way for new models of open innovation, cooperation in technology, communities and science, which are now pretty much all dealing with changes in scale. From the microcommunity of volunteer pioneers to coworking spaces and incubators, from nonprofit organizations to start-ups, from proof of concept (POC) to prototype to fabrication… labs may be more numerous, but they must face the contradictions of their emerging business model. This can also be seen in the many reactions to two recent articles published by Makery—the first on the new directions of La Myne biohacklab in Lyon, the second on the role of fablabs in the transition of France’s deindustrialized areas such as Amiens, as chronicled by Yann Paulmier from La Machinerie.
Biohackers in the hangar
The present situation can be better understood through a peek into the past. Thomas Landrain, a trained biologist, founded La Paillasse with a handful of young enthusiastic scientists, wizards of open science and open materials, in order to include young unemployed researchers and launch “alternative scientific research”. In 2009, La Paillasse is a pocket of passionate youth hosted by the pioneer of French hacklabs /tmp/lab, then occupying a hangar in Vitry-sur-Seine. In 2014, it’s a “quantum leap” (as Landrain told Makery in 2016), when La Paillasse moves to a 750m2 space (most of that area in the basement) at 226 rue Saint-Denis in Paris, for a rent of 25,000€ and the obligation to go professional. After years of “living on unemployment”, as one of the veterans phrases it, La Paillasse now employs a staff of 10 since late 2016.
Mouthpiece of DIYbio
This was the time when Landrain trotted around the globe to promote his vision of DIYbio, from MIT to fab conferences and other TED talks.
In 2014, next to the father of fablabs Neil Gershenfeld:
— Daily laurel (@dailylaurel) July 4, 2014
In 2016, at MIT’s The Future of People conference:
— The Future of People (@futureofpeople) December 3, 2016
Again in 2016, in California for Biohack the Planet:
— Counter Culture Labs (@CountrCultrLabs) September 24, 2016
Landrain is sort of the DIYbio tree hidden in the forest of the community created around La Paillasse. One can feel the internal tensions. “Sometimes people called me an autocrat, because decisions had to be made,” Landrain admits, “but we had to spit out cash, pay staff, be excellent…” For Marc Fournier, “We’ve been living the transition for the past three years, ever since we left the squat when our very diverse ecosystem was upscaled, and not always benevolently.” The man impatient for change is no doubt “totally cool” (Lahreche), but his vision hasn’t quite convinced the entire community.
In 2016, La Paillasse launched the Epidemium challenge, an online open research project on the epidemiology of cancer, volunteer-based in partnership with Roche laboratories. A private lab within a fablab, or a wolf in the sheep house? Even Fournier, currently promoting the recently launched season 2 of Epidemium, was “wary”. But just as the hackerspace ecosystem evolves, so do companies and their attitudes toward open innovation… Experiments, which up until now have been a proof of concept for La Paillasse, are back on the front burner with an even greater ambition—to go “all the way to scientific publication,” according to Fournier.
La Paillasse in 2017
The new president, Hacene Lahreche, also has a scientific background (his thesis was on physics and microelectronics). He first joined La Paillasse as a volunteer in September 2014, when he “developed complex group projects and during this time raised 1 million euros in grants, crowdfunded budgets, coworking resources…” When asked about how La Paillasse’s mission might change, he answers: “In addition to our project to create a public laboratory for open culture, we added the concept of entrepreneurship.”
Change in continuity? La Paillasse intends to pursue its policy of open residencies, the first of its three main activities. Fifteen residents, in exchange for a free space where they can develop their projects—scientific, graphics or technology-based—participate five days per month in the lab’s group projects. Following the first edition, launched under Landrain’s presidency, a second call for projects will be launched this autumn.
The second orientation, participatory science, takes the form of the Epidemium challenge. Season 1 brought together 16 teams (300 people, one-third students and two-thirds professionals) for six months, to crunch the metadata of cancer. For season 2, launched on June 6, “the teams are slowly forming, and we’ve already identified 10 projects that we see regularly at our meetups,” says Olivier de Fresnoye, head organizer. This time the challenge, open through December, is focused on developing a tool to predict cancer in time and space. More than a thousand people turned up on Meetup, and “130 created their account on our new platform,” De Fresnoye adds.
— Epidemium (@epidemium_cc) June 6, 2017
La Paillasse’s third and newest orientation is “inclusive student entrepreneurship,” says Lahreche. The Reboot project, intended to “reinitialize the campus,” according to the president, will launch in October. It partners five higher-learning institutions in the greater Paris region (ENSIIE and Télécom SudParis engineering schools, Arts déco (ENSAD), University of Evry (UEVE), and the business school Institut Mines-Télécom Télécom Ecole de Management), with five “inspiring spaces” (as they are described in the initial press release), including La Paillasse, along with incubators C19 and IMT Etoile, Creative Valley and the Cancer Campus biocluster). The idea is to support and encourage “projects by young people with an entrepreneurial focus on sciences and open source technologies,” says Lahreche.
In the meantime, La Paillasse “follows MIT’s vision to lower the barriers between the body of scientific professions,” Fournier assures us. “We’re keeping 300 events per year [La Paillasse privatizes and cooperates on all kinds of events], we continue to be a space that is very busy hosting research communities (from neurosciences to artificial engineering), supporting open source and open sciences. Also part of this continuity, Landrain still has one foot inside. His new project—an international NGO that he is preparing to launch in late July with Olivier de Fresnoye and Mehdi Benchoufi, both Epidemium coordinators, Marc Santolini, researcher at the Network Science Institute in Boston and Leo Blondel, doing his PhD in computational biology at Harvard—is called JoGL (Just One Giant Lab).
— Epidemium (@epidemium_cc) June 6, 2017
This platform, an original idea that came out of La Paillasse, is a partner of Epidemium season 2—the Epidemium website is based on a JoGL infrastructure. This “open and distributed research institute operates like hacker communities, in the interest of the general public,” Landrain explains. It’s also a response to his longtime obsession: “Today, we can no longer hold 10 million researchers worldwide entirely responsible for advancing science. We want to create a nation for researchers at different levels to get the ball rolling.”