By Andrew Seale
While at the MIT Media Lab in Boston, Julie Legault volunteered to coordinate a workshop run by Toronto DNA tinkerers Synbiota. The group’s goal was to bioengineer e.coli bacteria’s production of violacein, a vibrant purple compound with anti-cancer properties.
“During two sessions over the summer – a couple hours – (and) having no science background since high school biology, I was able to modify organism to produce something that was both beautiful and useful,” says Legault. “That really changed the way I saw GMOs and genetic engineering and how we could use this type of science and artwork and design.”
Inspired, Legault – whose background is in design, specifically inclusive and impact-focused design – conceived of a perfume that would react to hormones so children with autism could use it to modulate emotions.
“In theory, it's possible for me to do that using technologies like Synbiota. But in practice…” Legault laughs. She says she was given lab access and felt overwhelmed the second she set foot inside the lab. “I didn't know how to use any of the equipment, it was very dangerous looking and expensive and it wasn't something to learn and play with.”
But it piqued her interest.
Why wasn’t there some sort of accessible lab equipment out there for curious amateur DNA hackers to tinker with? It felt like she’d stumbled into a whole untapped market. So in June 2015 she launched Amino Labs, a line of mini-labs and bio-kits for amateurs.
“It’s an all-in-one lab very similar to old school chemistry sets that allows you to do the basics and from there expand your knowledge and create something meaningful,” explains Legault.
After graduating from MIT, the entrepreneurial designer relocated to Toronto where she’d kept in touch with Synbiota co-founder Dr. Justin Pahara, whose background in biotechnology and bioengineering came in handy as she developed her prototypes.
Legault, who grew up in Montreal, say it made more sense to start her business in Toronto, then Montreal where there wasn’t sturdy life sciences ecosystem. It also made more sense then launching stateside.
“It’s much easier and less expensive in Toronto than in Silicon Valley or Boston – there's a lot of very talented people that don't charge the salary they would in the US,” she says. Amino participated in the four month long IndieBio accelerator in Silicon Valley fall 2015. Although it was a positive experience, she says she’s had a lot more luck forming relationships within Toronto’s life science ecosystem.
“I’m not sure if it’s the right word but it’s more realistic here… there's not a lot of emphasis on getting into a newspaper or being published,” she says. “It's about getting the technology done and doing something meaningful with it.”
Amino has since relocated prototype production to a former convenience store turned research and development facility in Haliburton County a couple hours north of Toronto. Prior to that they’d been running production out of Legault’s apartment.
“We had a laser cutter in there which is not ideal for so many reasons so we needed to expand – we manufacture the product ourselves as a step before going into full manufacturing,” she adds.
But Toronto’s life sciences ecosystem is still a critical resource for Amino. Legault say they recently hosted a Chinese delegation interested in using Amino’s bio-labs in their education program.
“We toured them around Haliburton but wanted to give them the city feel so we got a really nice boardroom at MaRS, got them to meet with Ontario Genomics,” says Legault. “Everyone came together for this one random event… (people) blocked off time in their calendars to do that for us – I don’t imagine that would’ve happened elsewhere.”