Coming to Paris, I attended La Paillasse inauguration night, organised as part of the Nuit Blanche, a yearly event mixing culture, arts and party, when many museums, labs and other creative places open their doors for a full night of demos, exhibitions and music.

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La Paillasse is Europe’s largest biohackerspace, although it has recently gone beyond just open biotech (also known as DIY bio), launching a series of labs and projects which all breed from the extremely interdisciplinary environment the team managed to create in a bit more than two years.

The place perfectly embodies what open science is. More than just opening scientific culture, experiments and material to anyone willing to try something, the concept is claimed by a growing number of hacker and makerspaces around the world (see this US/Canada tour of biohackerspaces by Aurélien Daily and Quitterie Largeteau, two members of La Paillasse). It mixes the best of the open-source philosophy in a field, science, reputed for its high barriers to entry, as well as the way scientific publications are run and valued.

I’ve always been amazed and moved by La Paillasse and the work of its cofounder, Thomas Landrain. They did support two years ago our own first travel to SXSW, a prequel to our world tour of startups in the emerging markets, Innovation is Everywhere. They continue to help, assist, fund, connect a lot more very nascent projects, from polar exploration to a textile lab as well as a project of creating a bio-ink.

They are, as they often say, “fragile”, in the way the community is fully open to all winds and people, making it financially challenging to sustain. The upside of this “weak connections” is that the network itself is huge in terms of reach and quality.

So what’s a night at La Paillasse like, then?

The first part of the evening showed the history of La Paillasse, going from a 30 square meters squat in suburban Paris to a recently opened huge 750 square meters space in downtown Paris, rue Saint-Denis. It shows how, almost in an archetypal way, open source and open innovation communities always start organically, and push the walls as they grow in membership and visibility.

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La Paillasse #1 – A small squat in Vitry-sur-Seine, near Paris

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La Paillasse #2 – a 750 sqm space in the center of Paris, rue Saint-Denis

The two floors of the new Paillasse show also how it’s evolving from a single-topic space to something broader, taking advantage of the richness of collision between people both motivated (without them, as the business model is yet to be found, there’s just no Paillasse), and highly diverse in their experiences.

The first floor will host a coworking space, a good way to generate revenues while continuing to build the community and its different levels – I’m a “satellite” one, living in Singapore most of my time and coming back to Paris every quarter.

Undergound, an incredible network of old Parisian cellars create as many potential labs, all connected to one each other. There’s still some works to be made, especially to transform what looks like a wine cellar into a proper (and safe) lab type space. So far, the first “rooms” have been transformed into a Drone lab, a Cog(nition) Lab, a Biohacking Lab, a Playful Lab, and many other projects have a connection to La Paillasse.

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The power of weak links and network nodes

I’ve met with old and new friends, as well as a great number of ridiculously diverse people during the party itself. I had amazingly passionate discussions:

– talking of Ethereum opportunities with Clément Epié, the director of International and Labs of La Paillasse, and one of the best source of news on innovation
– discovering a “Bento Kit” of open-science for kids, designed by a British PhD candidate
– chatting again with Sybille, a student of the Web School Factory (an early backer of Innovation is Everywhere), who just finished an internship at a fulfilment center at Amazon
– learning about Big Data with Julien Breitfeld, the new CTO of Quantstreams, a startup aggregating data for businesses. He previously worked on streaming music, and at Viadeo, France’s LinkedIn.
– connecting with Adrien Malguy, who heads the Ghost City Lab at La Paillasse, a project providing open-exploration tools to analyse abandoned cities, and how we could re-use them
– learning more from Mehdi, part of a team trying to crack the code of low-cost echograph, a still expensive diagnosis tool which could be rebuilt with open-hardware for less than $100
– reconnecting with Matthieu Vetter, a CFO for several startups who decided to launch a printed magazine on innovation (like a French Wired) called Silex ID (for which we do some work)
– seeing again Céline Tchao, who opened a La Paillasse lab in the Philippines this summer, a country we have been exploring too recently
– trying to better understand Yann Heurtaux’s Hackuarium, who is opening a Paillasse-like space in Lausanne, Switzerland
– and congratulating JB Roger, the head of La Fonderie, the greater Paris region digital enhancer. They have recently announced another round of support for about 20 Fablabs in Paris, including La Paillasse

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And, to add to this already high diversity of people, the art & music line-up organised by Aurélien brought Mr. Chat, famous in Paris and elsewhere for his street art cats, visible in many cities, as well as Gotan Project among other bands.

You can continue to support La Paillasse by attending their events, cowork there, and connect with them in Paris, Lyon, in the Philippines and, I’m told, pretty soon in Shenzhen as well.