You'd be hard-pressed to read one of the many published lists of "world-changing" technologies and not spot an entry about Crispr. Scientists think the nascent gene-editing technique could eventually be used for anything from engineering disease-resistant crops to eradicating illnesses.
Another long-shot possibility: bringing back extinct animals like the woolly mammoth. That's where the year-old startup Mammoth Biosciences got its name.
Twenty-nine-year-old co-founder and CEO Trevor Martin admits that it's mostly a joke. In reality, his company's goal is much more grounded: Mammoth wants to use Crispr to simplify the process of diagnosing illnesses, which can often require several tests and days of waiting for lab results--and still isn't always accurate.
The startup is developing technology that could someday allow customers to check themselves for serious diseases. In the meantime, it's working on getting its diagnostic tests into the hands of doctors and lab technicians.
'Falling in love'
While earning his doctorate at Stanford, Martin took a course that focused on how to combine biology with other fields--math, statistics, physics, etc.--to open up new scientific possibilities. "I ended up falling in love with this idea that you could leverage different fields to create something more than the sum of its parts," he says.
Martin thought about how that concept could be applied to health care. As he saw it, the area of therapeutics was getting most of the attention in that field; far fewer companies focused on diagnostics. "It was seen as less cool," he says. "So immediately I fell in love with it."
Martin and several classmates agreed to form a company with the goal of making diagnostics faster, simpler, and more precise. They still needed a way to accomplish it. That's when they came across newly published research from Berkeley professor and Crispr co-inventor Jennifer Doudna that detailed how to use the technique for exactly that purpose.
He cold-emailed Doudna. After a few months of dialogue, Martin and his classmates officially joined forces with Doudna and several of her teammates to form Mammoth Biosciences. The startup secured a spot in an accelerator program run by early stage investor NFX Venture Capital, which also provided $3 million in seed money.
Mammoth says it's developing technology that uses saliva or urine samples to nearly instantly diagnose diseases, such as malaria and HPV. Using Crispr proteins, the company creates tests that detect a virus's genetic code in a person's cells. If a disease is present in the sample, the liquid will change color, indicating a positive test.
To start, the company is focusing on integrating its product into existing lab and hospital tests to make them faster and more accurate. The long-term goal is to create consumer kits that let anyone test themselves at home. Martin isn't naive--he knows getting there will take years. The company is still pre-revenue. Mammoth will need to continue developing and refining its technology to make it scalable and simple enough to use at home, and earn approval from the FDA. It might also face stiff competition if public Crispr companies like Intellia and Editas Medicine decide to expand their focus from therapeutics to diagnostics.
For now, the 20-person company is building out a staff that can get there. "We've assembled literally the best Crispr team that you can possibly put together," says Martin. "But that's not enough. To create a diagnostic product, we need to assemble the best commercialization team as well, people who are critical to actually delivering a useful product to consumers."
Commercialization likely will mean extending beyond its own products, as Mammoth will look to license its technology to other companies. That possibility attracted Ursheet Parikh, VC at Mayfield Fund, which led Mammoth's $23 million Series A round last year. "The traditional approach that most diagnostics and therapeutics companies have taken is to try to build this walled garden where they can use the technology just for their own products," Parikh says. "With Mammoth, we see an opportunity to create a broad platform that enables hundreds of new applications."
Even though the company is starting with diagnostics, Martin won't dismiss the possibility that the company pursues some of Crispr's other potential uses, like therapies or gene editing, in the future. "We want to create products that improve people's quality of life," he says. "We're really interested in pushing the boundaries of CRISPR, seeing what is possible at the absolute limit."
Even if that doesn't mean resurrecting prehistoric beasts.