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Jan 12, 2024, 1:57pm EST
tech

The business model behind resurrecting the woolly mammoth

Colossal Biosciences
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The Scene

When Colossal Biosciences made a splash in 2021 with its goal of resurrecting the woolly mammoth from extinction, it raised many scientific and ethical issues.

While it has attracted big name investors like Jim Breyer, Tim Draper, and the CIA’s In-Q-Tel, how it would make money from its de-extinction mission was also a question. It turns out that Colossal has a talent for spawning new ventures as advances in AI create breakthroughs in genetics.

Its first spun-out company, Form Bio, raised more than $30 million in an oversubscribed, first round of funding. It’s now generating seven figures in annual recurring revenue, according to Colossal CEO Ben Lamm.

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Another Colossal-gestated company just closed a round of financing (Lamm declined to provide further details) in what’s becoming a core part of the firm’s business model. But it’s still in the early stages of figuring out how to bring in revenue, as it’s added the Tasmanian tiger and dodo to the list of animals it wants to bring back from the dead.

The company also brought on a Hollywood filmmaker to build content, which could draw interest from museums and zoos. In the edited conversation below, we talked to Lamm about how close they are in bringing back the mammoth and how Colossal could make money from it.

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The View From Ben Lamm

Q: We’re about the same age and I remember watching Jurassic Park as a kid in the theaters. Was that movie a big deal for you, too?

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A: My grandmother took me to see it. There are a couple really interesting things about Jurassic Park. You may be surprised by this, but it comes up occasionally here. In the first book, the DNA sequence is a slightly modified version of [Colossal’s co-founder and lead geneticist] George Church’s sequence that he published. So I like to think that Jurassic Park was inspired by George.

The other really great thing about Jurassic Park was it really taught people, even though it was a dystopian movie and it was entertainment, the basics that there’s this thing called a gene. There’s this thing called DNA. And we, as humanity, now yield the power to manipulate it, or edit it and read and write it, and understand it. I like to joke that moms in Iowa know that genome engineering is the thing, not because they read Science or Nature, but because they saw Jurassic Park.

Q: How did you end up starting this company with George Church?

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A: My superpower is working with much smarter women and men than me. I reached out to George because I saw the rise of synthetic biology, assumed that AI and automation can be significantly helpful in designing experiments, do computational biology and genetic comparisons. And was there a world to build at least one or a suite of companies at the intersection of AI and genomic software? Towards the end of the call, I asked him ‘If you had unlimited capital to work on one thing, what would it be?’

His voice completely changed and he said ‘I would work to bring back the mammoth and reintroduce it back into the Arctic to help preserve the permafrost. And I’d build technologies to help humans and conservation.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ And then the call was over. It was like the greatest cliffhanger ever. And then I stayed up all night, reading more and watching more videos of George Church, and there was a mammoth through line in all of his stuff that I just wasn’t aware of. I was just really shocked.

Q: How is the effort going to build the mammoth?

A: It’s somewhat frustrating or a double-edged sword. What we’re doing is really cool, but very few people want to talk about the conservation work we’re doing. They’re like ‘let’s talk about de-extinction.’ But we were fortunate at the end of 2023, we had folks interested in learning about what we’re doing that also has an application to conservation.

But a quick update: We’re not currently raising capital, the business is doing well. We’re doing research on a bunch of species outside of the mammoth, thylacine [also known as the Tasmanian tiger] and dodo. And we’re learning a lot about other ancient species.

De-extinction and the pursuit of synthetic biology is really a systems model. You have to build teams and infrastructure to support everything, from an ancient DNA lab all the way through computational analysis, to protein engineering, and DNA synthesis, advanced embryology and cloning, to animal husbandry. And then we have a team working on artificial wombs.

Our long-term goal is not even to use surrogates. We want to do everything ex-utero. That will be a massive transformative technology, not just for extinction, but also for our species preservation, as well as potential impacts to human healthcare. We hope to have our first [mammoth] calves by 2028. We’re still on track for that.

We now have over 60 genomes that we’ve done analysis on. We built a reference genome that we published and gave to the world for free for the African elephant and the Asian elephant.

Q: Do you have a genome for the mammoth and that will be the final product? And are there parts missing that you’re finding?

A: This is a great question. So, tying it back together, what you’re describing is Jurassic Park. They were taking ancient DNA. In their case, dino DNA and in our case mammoth DNA. They were looking for the holes and filling it in with that of the frog in the movie. (In our case it would be an elephant.)

But that’s not actually the best way to do it. Even if we were able to have a complete mammoth genome, that’s 100% exactly right, and we had the ability to print it, that one genome could have some type of mutation. It could have a certain type of cancer or sickle cell or any anything that all of us humans have, and animals have. (Cancer is a bad example with elephants because elephants actually get cancer in significantly lower numbers than humans do.)

We do comparative genomics and say, ‘what were the genes that drove the phenotypes or physical attributes of a mammoth that made it effectively cold tolerant.’ And what most people don’t realize is that mammoths were 99.6% Asian elephants. They’re actually closer genetically to Asian elephants than Asian elephants are to African elephants.

So we’ve taken Asian elephant cells and immortalized them. We’ve done all the computational analysis. So we know what genes made a mammoth a mammoth. And then we’re editing those in Asian elephant cells, because we know already they have 99.6% of them done correctly. So you don’t have to go fill in the gaps. You just have to make those edits. And then there are some edits, like in genetic diversity, that we don’t necessarily need in our gen 1 population. In our gen 2 population, we need to start introducing genetic diversity so that you allow the ability to interbreed.

Q: How do you know that the Asian elephant is so similar to the mammoth if you don’t have the whole mammoth genome?

A: Most of that’s done based on these phylogenetic trees. We did not do that. But we have verified it. We had this debate with the dodo. Its closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon. It’s got a small head, not this kind of dodo head. So there was an internal debate. It kind of looks morphologically like a vulture in some ways. Could it have been some type of weird vulture? Phylogenetically, that’s been designed by scientists for the last 50 to 100 years. Did they get this wrong? So we went and did a bunch of DNA research and turns out, no, they were right. But we did the exercise, because someone internally had this weird thesis.

Q: Did you pick the dodo because of its cultural significance?

A: We started with the mammoth, then we did the thylacine. They’re both mammals. Humans had a direct or indirect application to their extinction. But the dodo is like the symbol of human-caused extinction. Beth Shapiro is our lead paleo geneticist. She’s one of the top ancient DNA experts in the world. She actually has a dodo tattoo. She’s the only one in the world who has a reference-level genome of the dodo. It was like the stars aligned. We wanted to do avian conservation and oh, by the way, the person who did all the dodo research is very involved with Colossal.

Q: I want to ask you about the business. You have these high profile investors like Jim Breyer. How does this tech turn into revenue?

A: Thomas Tull is our largest investor. We’ve got USIT, In-Q-Tel, Bob Nelson, arguably the number one biotech investor of all time, Jim Breyer, who’s amazing. Tim Draper.

They kind of like the idea of what if you could go back in time and invest in NASA. You’re doing this thing that’s really cool for the world, that will spin off technologies that are good for the world, that will make history, and spin off technologies that are lucrative.

We do think there’s a consumer side of it at some point that’s around education. But right now, our focus is really just on delivering on the science, delivering on the conservation, and delivering on the technologies.

Q: What’s in your investor deck? How are billions made off this in the future?

A: Our investor deck isn’t for everyone. It really focuses more on the team and the science. It talks a lot about the technology spinouts, it talks a little bit about education and consumer aspects. There’s a huge opportunity long term with biodiversity, credits, carbon credits, government subsidies, and eco tourism.

If we are successful in our thylacine work, we’re confident that there’s a myriad of different things we can do with the Australian government around that. We’re talking to the Mauritian government [where the dodos once lived]. They’re like ‘you’re going to double tourism,’ which is about a quarter of their GDP.

We don’t have every answer right now. Our focus is starting those conversations, making sure we have public support, making sure that we have nonprofit support, indigenous people support, and government support. Make sure this is what people want.

Q: I’ve heard that zoos might be a big customer.

A: We partnered with a handful of zoos. It’s all around technology for conservation, though. So we like to give them technologies that we develop and then we’re sponsoring some of their programs. For example, we just announced our partnership with the zoo in Queensland [Australia] because they actually discovered this earless dragon that they thought was extinct.

Q: Will we ever see mammoths in zoos?

A: Mammoths would be very hard to put into a zoo.

Q: Is it too warm?

A: It depends. You’re not going to put mammoths in Texas, right? I think ecotourism is more likely long term, in partnership with governments and indigenous people. Going to Australia, Mauritius, Alaska, and seeing the mammoths. We’ve had lots of people like ranchers call us and offer us all kinds of deals. Right now, the only revenue we have is some federal stuff.

Our focus right now is getting animals back into the world and back into their natural habitats. Based on our current monetization models, we think that’s very lucrative.

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