Excellence in another area
As a team, we believe our lab activities, establishing an NPO, and creating a comprehensive design are worthy of a nomination for Excellence in another area.
The journey of our iGEM team began when Standa and Barča met Nemanja Stijepovic in Brno. Our team effort since then came "from below", as they were organized by students themselves. We as students have assembled the team on our own. At the beginning we didn't really have anyone to guide us and point us in the right direction, so we had to try and organize our efforts by ourselves. We were searching and contacting our potential PI's, presenting them with drafts of possible research topics, and praying for their participation.
All the lab work and lab management was also left to us. We got our own laboratory available exclusively for us. We had to learn how to order necessary materials, organize everyday functioning of the lab and how to manage complex scientific research. Most of us had very little or no experience even with basic laboratory methods at the beginning, so it really was a challenge. We have come a really long way, to a point where we can confidently say that we as students are able to independently lead our own research in all aspects.
Next to that, being faced with problems we didn't anticipate at the start of our journey, we decided to take a big leap and start a non-profit organization (NPO).
Establishing an NPO
Our primary goal was to avoid the university's complex administrative processes regarding educational activities. The university is a public entity and as such it has strict rules for handling finances. While payments directly related to the experimental part of iGEM (participation fees and laboratory expenses) are not a concern, other related costs might be problematic to process through the universities' system. These might include charges for advertising on Facebook, material costs for public display of experiments, costs of printing educational materials, or costs for the prototype of our device.
We have decided to create an NPO dedicated to funding and managing our educational and marketing efforts. Our research and all of the financial and material costs which come with that are handled through Masaryk university and the research institution CEITEC.
Before looking for potential investors, we arranged a workshop with Ondřej Beňuš. Ondřej has valuable experience with NPO funding, as he is a member of one of the other NPOs falling under our university. During the workshop, we were introduced to marketing, fundraising, and even talked to companies' representatives. It felt as though we became a call center - calling and writing emails for a few weeks, hoping to arrange a meeting.
Unfortunately, due to the epidemiological situations in the spring, we needed to scale down our efforts in this direction. Despite this, we succeeded as multiple (both virtual and physical) meetings were arranged and companies Promega and East Port decided to support us. For the next season, we have adapted our funding efforts to the pandemic situation and successfully started asking for support.
Creating an NPO also means forming a legal entity and, in many ways, resembles establishing and running a commercial company. In Czech law, both should include a governing body, which issues bylaws and directives, and an executive body, which is running the entity on a daily basis (keep in mind, the local laws regarding NPOs are different in every country). The main difference is that all NPO's profit must flow back into the NPO's cause, so no dividend payments are possible. As an NPO, we can sign contracts, earn gifts in transparent ways, and pay the costs of our activities from an executive position.
Our story of establishing an NPO began with the bylaws draft. This was done by one of our team members. The rest of the team was then introduced to the establishment of a legal entity and the possibilities of designing and running an NPO. The inaugural meeting, where we approved statutes, took place soon afterwards. We then applied to the court to register our NPO in the registry of legal entities, providing all the necessary documentation.
Another thing, required of an NPO, is having official headquarters. Placing our headquarters at our university requires the rector's officially certified consent, which can take weeks to obtain (and due to the coronavirus crisis, it ended up taking 4 months). Therefore, we asked the local startup accelerator JIC if they would provide a temporary address for us. As the portfolio of JIC activities includes supporting biotech startups, they agreed. Thanks to JIC, we could establish the NPO rather soon and start financing the facebook campaign as well as our educational activities. Nowaday, our headquarters are finally located at the Masaryk university.
Last but not least, accounting is always a major part of managing a legal entity. We are aware that this is a huge responsibility, so we opted to work with external accountants. We still make payments, collect and number our accounting documents (as invoices or contracts). In the end however, the accounting itself is being passed on to an external accountant for processing.
The name (Czech: Generace Mendel; English: Generation Mendel) and visual identity of our NPO was inspired by the father of genetics Johann Gregor Mendel. The peas in the lower part of the logo were included to represent him and his research. Our logo is also connected to the DNA double helix, which represents synthetic biology. The word generation was chosen to suggest that we are part of a new and young wave of open minded and auspicious people.
Mendel spent most of his life in Brno. Here he founded the modern science of genetics and thanks to him, now over hundred years later, we can study synthetic biology and are able to apply the core tenets, which he discovered, in ways which would seem impossible in his era. That is why we think that carrying forward his legacy is important. The whole concept should represent not only our love for science and synthetic biology, but also for the Czech Republic and our beautiful city Brno.
We used this concept in our online (social media, website) and also physical (posters, buttons) materials. Click here or here to see the brochures we created. The colour interface expresses not only simplicity and science but also the variety and uniqueness of our team members.
In summary, establishing an NPO made our efforts to spread awareness about synthetic biology much easier. Additionally, we learned valuable lessons about legal entities' operation, which definitely helped to prepare us for the possible establishment of a biotechnological company and the potential commercialization of our product. We exerted a lot of effort on our NPO - we thought through every detail and our work has borne fruit.