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TED Comes to frog: Lunchtime Conversations on DIY Biology and Smart Materials

To celebrate the recent publication of the "Radical Openness" issue of Design Mind magazine, created in partnership with TED, frog welcomed two 2012 TEDGlobal speakers to the New York studio to share their work. On November 13, Ellen Jorgensen, the president and co-founder of community biology lab Genspace (pictured above), joined us for lunch and discussed how DIY biology is both a growing segment of the Maker movement and a compelling source for innovative new materials and fresh product and service ideas. On November 15, Catarina Mota, a TED Fellow and visiting scholar at New York University, shared her research into simple, DIY smart materials and announced a new initiative she is co-organizing to mobilize Makers to help develop humanitarian solutions. Both events were available via video- and phone-conferencing to frog studios around the world.

Ellen talked about how Genspace developed as a membership-based lab that attracts a wide spectrum of people, from artists and architects to high school and college students, venture capitalists, intellectual property lawyers, and professional biologists alike, who want to experiment with biological materials in a hands-on way. She shared some intriguing examples of DIY biology's practical applications, such as in consumer advocacy around food labeling. In this case, simple kits can be created to test the genetic make up of sushi or goat cheese to reveal when restaurants or companies try to sell one product falsely as another. Ellen also fielded questions from frogs on timely issues, including the shortcomings of genetic testing kits and the ethics surrounding such topics as the granting or denial of marriage licenses based on the results of applicants' disease screenings.

At Catarina's lunchtime talk at frog, the focus was also on DIY culture and how it relates to innovation. Catarina shared some fascinating examples of extremely simple, yet strikingly elegant experiments in devices and device controls made from such low-tech materials as magnets, paper, drinking straws, small LED lights, and paint that can change color when heated. For instance, she showed a light made from a straw and a tiny bulb, mounted on paper, that could be controlled via touch -- with absolutely no electrical wires or any software components. (Needless to say, those of us in the room with Catarina enjoyed handling and trying out these examples physically.)

Catarina (pictured above) also discussed how the DIY "smart" materials community overlaps with movements ranging from open-source software advocacy to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy. In each case, she said, there is an emphasis on transparency and trust, as well as the ability to quickly mobilize toward a goal -- which results from the open and widespread sharing of ideas.

For more on Ellen's and Catarina's work and how it relates to the Maker movement and DIY culture, you can check out this story from the current issue of Design Mind, which weaves together a profile of Genspace and explores how making is affecting the business world, and vice versa.

Photos: Kajsa Westman

Reena Jana is frog's Executive Editor. Based in New York, Reena is the former innovation department editor at BusinessWeek, and has contributed to a variety of publications including Wired, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review online, Fortune.com, and numerous others.