A 30-year-old founder’s billion-dollar bet on CRISPR gene editing

Janice Chen (C) and her Mammoth Biosciences co-founders Trevor Martin (L) and Lucas Harrington (R). Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR gene-editing pioneer and Nobel laureate, is also a co-founder.

Along Highway 101 north of San Francisco Airport, a biotech startup named Mammoth Biosciences, co-founded by Nathan Chen’s sister Janice in 2018, is rapidly emerging in the groundbreaking field of CRISPR technology. .

While not high profile like his gold medalist, ice skater brother – or Mammoth co-founder Jennifer Doudna, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on CRISPR – Chen’s bioscience work in gene editing technology is at the forefront of medical discovery from the identification of bacterial and viral infections to the early detection of cancer.

CRISPR, or evenly spaced short palindromic repeats, effectively cuts genomes and slices DNA to treat genetic diseases.

Outside of a select circle of co-workers, few knew Nathan was her brother until she enthusiastically posted on social media about his gold medal victory as his family watched the televised games from his home in San Francisco. Chen recalls being with her family in Seoul four years ago and seeing him compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics. During breaks, she was busy contacting lawyers to start the process of creating the business.

Since the 2020 pandemic, the biotech start-up has accelerated. The company landed about $100 million in contracts with Bayer and Vertex Pharmaceuticals and government grants, increased the number of employees from 30 to 130, and hired at least 55 more. Its valuation soared to $1 billion, with $150 million in a venture deal last September that included Amazon, famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Mayfield and Apple’s Tim Cook.

The exit strategy is not an acquisition, as Chen sees it.

“Our intention is not to build and sell it, but to become a $100 billion company in next-gen CRISPR technology. There are so many creative building opportunities and new technologies that can arise of discovery in gene editing,” Chen said. “Identifying the business strategy meant I had to get out of the lab and scale the business,” added Chen, who worked remotely during Covid but is now back at the company’s headquarters in Brisbane. , California, where its distinct green and white elephant-shaped signage is highly visible.

Salt Lake City roots, Silicon Valley growth

Growing up in Salt Lake City as one of five siblings (Nathan, 22, is the youngest), his parents, who immigrated from China in 1988, encouraged us to “achieve our potential and become that best for us,” Chen, now 30. , noted. Chen learned to play the violin, competed in chess tournaments, and excelled in dancing. In chess competitions, where she was often the youngest and only woman, she said she learned “how to lose and how to win strategies”.

She discovered her passion for biosciences in her father’s small biotech company in Utah.

To relieve the stress of expanding Mammoth Biosciences, Chen recently started running in the San Francisco hills near her home. She learned about management challenges in the field by reading “The Founder’s Dilemma”. She also sought advice from an executive coach who helped determine “what kind of leader I want to be,” she said, adding, “I want to help myself and others achieve their full potential. It’s about understanding each person’s motivations, what they want to try and learn, and integrating that into the business ecosystem.”

Mammoth Biosciences builds on core technology that Chen worked on in Doudna’s lab at UC Berkeley. Chen earned her Ph.D. as a graduate student researcher at this innovation hotbed.

As a mentor, Doudna encouraged Chen to start his own business after graduation rather than working at a big biotech company. “She told me I wasn’t shooting high enough,” said Chen, who has college degrees from Harvard Medical School and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as well as an internship at a research institute. on HIV in Durban, South Africa.

“She’s a tech team leader and global strategist who has deep science and creativity, and can see where this technology is going,” said Doudna, whose UC Berkeley lab has been plunged into a ongoing patent battle over biomedical property. Technology. The US Patent and Trademark Office recently came out in favor of the Broad Institute, a partnership between MIT and Harvard University. This decision impacts the licenses of several CRISPR companies, but does not extend to the particular gene editing system used by Mammoth Biosciences. Doudna is also a co-founder of the publicly listed company CRISPR Intellia Therapeutics.

At the age of 26, just after graduating, Chen had ventured out with fellow student and lab researcher Lucas Harrington to co-create a company. They settled in a biotech incubator in San Francisco’s booming Dogpatch neighborhood. “Janice and I split our time working in the lab and making prototypes, and pitching venture capitalists,” Harrington recalls. Her husband, a San Francisco scientist she met at Johns Hopkins, “understands the journey” and her dedication to building this game-changing company. “It’s my life right now,” she said.

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They met Mayfield partner Ursheet Parikh through a connection with Doudna. Parikh was advising Stanford Ph.D. Trevor Martin on launching a diagnostic testing startup. The venture capitalist brought together Martin, Doudna, Harrington and Chen, and the team formed Mammoth Biosciences. Martin is CEO, Harrington is scientific director, Doudna is chairman of the scientific advisory board while Chen is technical director.

“He’s a multi-faceted person and clearly a genius,” said Mayfield’s Parikh, a board member and serial investor in his company.

VC investment in gene editing hits billions

Since 2014, CRISPR startups have attracted $3 billion in venture capital, according to Chris Dokomajilar, founder and CEO of biopharmaceutical database company DealForma. An analysis from GlobalData’s Pharma Intelligence Center shows 74 venture capital deals for CRISPR technology companies since 2012, with Mammoth Biosciences leading the most well-funded. The startup has raised $265 million in four funding rounds from at least 15 venture capitalists and angel investors.

The company’s work expanded rapidly during the pandemic in 2020. Among seven companies that awarded $249 million for rapid National Institutes of Health Covid-19 tests, the company ramped up its patented DetectR test for commercial laboratories diagnosing the virus. In collaboration with GSK Consumer Healthcare in Warren, New Jersey, a portable device capable of performing rapid diagnostic tests for the coronavirus is being created. Additionally, Mammoth Biosciences partnered in early 2021 with Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara to develop CRISPR test systems for laboratories to expand and accelerate the detection of coronavirus disease.

“She has a rare skill in conceptualizing the future and what this technology can do for humanity,” said another of her investors, Harsh Patel, co-founder and managing director of Wireframe Ventures. “It can turn amazing science in a lab into commercial technology products. It’s a big step up from the lab.”

Further developments came in rapid-fire sequence later in 2021 and throughout this year. Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Boston paid the startup $41 million to expand cell and gene therapy tools, which could generate $650 million in royalties. Bayer AG in Berlin paid Mammoth Biosciences $40 million to focus on liver disease testing and treatment, with royalties up to $1 billion. Additionally, last January, the FDA granted the company emergency use authorization for a CRISPR-based molecular diagnostic test for the coronavirus.

The achievements have tested Chen’s strength as an innovator and business leader, but investors say she is unfazed. “I’ve never seen her savaged in board meetings. She has strong opinions and she backs them up not with arguments, but with data,” said Omri Amirav-Drory, general partner at venture capital firm NFX, investor and advisor. “I will never sell my shares, I will give them to my children. There is a huge amount of intellectual property in the company.”

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