A Lab Startup

You have $200,000 to spend in your new lab. What should you buy?

Oct 1, 2006
Jeffrey M. Perkel

After two years of trying, my wife has finally landed the tenure-track job she's dreamed of for so long. Now it's time to set up her lab in Idaho State University's department of biological sciences. The department gave her a startup package for "equipment, materials, other expenses, and for support of students," of just over $200,000, about half of which goes to support research associates. That leaves $100,000 over two years to jump-start her biochemistry lab.

Nothing in her experience - no class, no seminar, no postdoc-mentor conversation - has prepared her for this moment. What should she buy? She'll need the basics first: gel boxes, centrifuges, micropipettes, reagents, glassware, and the like. Her big-ticket wish-list item is a FPLC (fast protein liquid chromatography) system and fraction collector, which she'll use for protein purification and size-exclusion chromatography. Such systems can list upward of $50,000, but between new-faculty discounts and trimming back bells and whistles, she may be able to buy one for less then $30,000.

My wife hasn't figured out what she can't live without yet, but Judy Kim has figured out her own needs. Hired last year as an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego, Kim's must-have item was a laser system with detectors and optics, which typically costs between $100,000 and $500,000. She'll use this system to investigate membrane protein folding. "If you're going to hire me, that's absolutely essential," she says.

Kim won't say how big her startup package was but says she's spent about 40% of it so far, with 90% going to equipment. In addition to the laser, she's also purchased a laser table and electronics, plus centrifuges, incubators, shakers, refrigerators, and an FPLC. With the exception of the laser and its optics, a -20º C freezer from Sears, most of her equipment has been used. "I am being conservative," she says. "If I don't get any outside funding for three years, can I keep my group alive?"

Startup packages for junior faculty can run up to about $1.5 million, according to Stan Opella, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSD. Senior faculty can get $3 million or more, most of it earmarked for renovations and equipment.

A female assistant professor of biochemistry in Colorado hired last year knows that only too well. With a startup package of $350,000 over three years (including some for salary), the researcher - who refused to give her startup package unless she remained anonymous - has made a few modest purchases: $10,000 for a high-speed, refrigerated centrifuge; $4,000 for a cell culture incubator; and $3,500 for a PCR machine. She's saving her money for cell culture: Disposables, media, and serum will cost about $5,000 per year, she says. As a result, she is putting off a few equipment purchases, including a Gradient Station from BioComp Instruments and a TomTec cell harvester, both of which cost between $15,000 and $20,000.

A male assistant professor of biochemistry in California, who started last month, made similar choices. He tapped into his $900,000 startup package to buy some standard items, including "two or three" tissue-culture hoods ($5,000 each); cell-culture incubators ($3,000 each); and a collection of fluorescent stereo-microscopes (about $25,000) and inverted cell-culture microscopes ($50,000). "Microscopy is going to be the biggest hole in terms of cash that we have to fill," says the scientist, who also refused to disclose his startup package unless granted anonymity.

Mice will chew another big hole in his budget. At $0.75 per day, a colony of 200 cages ("which is pretty small") will cost $55,000 per year. So he's holding off on a few items, including some high-throughput, small-molecule screens, as well as the confocal microscope ($200,000 to $300,000) he would "love" to have.

Frugality does have its drawbacks, however. Another Colorado researcher, Rui Zhao, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, saved between $10,000 and $12,000 from her startup package by "inheriting" a -80º C freezer from a lab that moved elsewhere. "It's so old, I'm worried it will die at any moment."