Doing big things on a small scale: The Biomolecular Nanotechnology Center

Paul Lum, the managing director of the Biomolecular Nanotechnology Center (BNC), talks about the history of the facility, its unique equipment, and the BNC’s research and culture.

Located in UC Berkeley’s Stanley Hall, the Biomolecular Nanotechnology Center (BNC) serves as one of 32 core facilities on the UC Berkeley campus and one of 11 QB3-Berkeley core research facilities.

As an instrument and lab-sharing resource, the BNC offers campus researchers three categories of services: microfabrication, cell culture/chemistry lab space, and metrology instrumentation. Microfabrication tools allow researchers to build small-scale structures with dimensions in the micrometer to millimeter range. Microfabrication technology at the BNC encompasses photolithography, soft lithography, surface “modification” treatment, deposition, and etching. The chemistry/cell-culture area consists of chemistry hoods, bio-hoods, lab benches, incubators, standard bio-lab bench instrumentation, and optical microscopes. The metrology area consists of optical and advanced light microscopes, profilometry, atomic force microscopy, electron microscope for imaging, with material analysis instrumentation (EDX and EBSD) and a focused ion beam for both fabrication and imaging, and helium ion microscope (HIM), which uses helium ions instead of electrons to fabricate or image. The HIM can fabricate and image nanoscale structures beyond the capability of most electron beam microscopes. Most of this equipment is generally not available in most non-chemistry or non-biology researcher laboratories, so the BNC benefits many campus researchers by offering these tools at affordable user prices.

“The BNC concept was to provide microfabrication capabilities for non-traditional applications from communities such as biology, physics, chemistry, material sciences, bioengineering, etc. with affordable rates and ease in accessibility,” says Paul Lum, the BNC’s managing director.

The idea for the BNC began in the early 2000s by its three founding BNC faculty directors, Richard Mathies, Dorian Liepmann, and Luke Lee. They envisioned a shared resource facility to accommodate biomedical microelectromechanical systems, or Bio-MEMS, microfabrication technology at UC Berkeley.

Lum joined the facility in 2007 and was an essential component in the founding of the BNC, turning the founding faculty members’ idea into the flourishing laboratory it is today. Chosen for his background in lab management and industrial research, Lum collected laboratory and microfabrication equipment, and wrote grant applications with the help of faculty members and friends to get the BNC up and running.

Just as it serves as an accessible resource hub for students at all levels of higher education, the BNC also contains a supportive community of experts, including Lum, who help guide and advise students through their projects, if needed. Often, Berkeley students wishing to learn about microfabrication as a tool during their Berkeley studies can receive hands-on training from the BNC staff and then apply the skills gained in the BNC in faculty labs or even with a QB3 Garage@Berkeley company.

The BNC also serves as a technological nexus for students and industry where trainees get to meet with medical and biotech companies, helping them translate lab concepts into real-life practice. Internships, jobs, and connections are established and opportunities to pay it forward can emerge. During 2011 and 2012, the BNC partnered with Oakland City’s Laney Community College in the Medical Device Manufacturing Program to help to train unemployed workers for a new career in bio and medical technology. BNC staff and bioengineering students volunteered as training staff working side-by-side with Laney College participants.

Upon completion of the program, many of the Laney College students found new jobs. “It was a joy no words can express,” Lum says about the training program. “Even to this very day when we learn that a BNC user has found a job after graduation or got accepted to graduate or medical school, we are thrilled that the BNC has helped play a role in their success.”

Supporting Researchers and Their Companies

Access to advanced technology and close connections with faculty members has provided many students the opportunity to reach success. For example, one notable project conducted at BNC is Lucira Health. The founders are former graduate students at UC Berkeley who used BNC to build microfluidic devices to investigate and manipulate cells. After they graduated, they started a startup known as Diassess, expanded on their devices by joining the QB3 Garage@Berkeley, and continued to use the BNC as a resource.

During the COVID-19 pandemic came the rise of Lucira Health, in which the company’s founders used the product they developed in the BNC laboratory to perform molecular diagnostics for COVID-19 testing. This product has since been granted FDA approval for self-testing at home. The company also partnered with the Golden State Warriors basketball team for COVID-19 site testing at the new San Francisco Chase Center stadium.

The founders of Lucira Health are just some among the many graduate students and postdocs who have used BNC for their startup companies and research. Other startups whose founders have utilized the BNC’s services include mFluiDx, Scuba Probe Technologies, Teralytic, Chemisense, Nano Precision Medical, and Mekonos, Inc.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the BNC may not look as busy as it used to, but it remains an open resource for all students and BNC industrial affiliate members. The BNC staff who operate the facility welcome any interested students and researchers on campus to come to the lab and try out its equipment.

“Somebody’s got a wild idea? We bring it up; we try to attack it,” says Lum. “At the BNC, we make it easy to prove basic concepts and get experiments working so researchers can grow their projects.”

For first-timers, Lum and the faculty members who use the BNC are always willing to lend a hand to get the ball rolling. “It’s kind of fun, helping people grow,” Lum says. “Then you get to step back and watch — wow.”