GameChangers / Entrepreneur Journey

Saving Billions of Lives with Next Generation CRISPR Company Mammoth

Partnered at Seed

Sep 9, 2021

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Sep 9, 2021

The relationship between Mayfield and Mammoth Biosciences began when Mayfield managing director Navin Chaddha met Mammoth co-founder and CEO Trevor Martin back in 2017. Trevor was a recent Stanford PhD graduate pursuing an unusual path: he planned to start a company focused not on his graduate thesis work, but on the newly-invented CRISPR diagnostic technology, licensed from the University of California at Berkeley. Mayfield partner Ursheet Parikh was investing in the next generation of bio-engineering platforms, opening the door to a whole new class of treatments and diagnostics, in contrast to traditional biotech investing, focused on individual treatment. Ursheet and Navin were very impressed with Trevor’s passion and entrepreneurial spirit. Mayfield invested in a seed round in a company that was then called Apheleia Diagnostics.

Ursheet drew upon Mayfield’s expertise in guiding scores of companies at the inception stage, including Poshmark, Outreach, and HashiCorp, and leaned in to help. As Trevor and Ursheet got to know each other in the following months, they discovered a shared passion for building a defined, extensible platform to power hundreds of new treatments and diagnostics. Trevor called it “Mammoth Inside,” drawing the analogy to “Intel Inside.” Building such a platform company would require Mammoth to involve the core inventors of CRISPR and the core of the CRISPR discovery engine that could power future innovation. To drive this effort, Ursheet connected with Dr. Jennifer Doudna — now the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for her development of the CRISPR method for genome editing, and whose lab at UC Berkeley is a hotbed of CRISPR innovation. She shared that her students, Janice Chen and Lucas Harrington – inventors of the CRISPR diagnostics technology as well as many novel CRISPR systems for diagnostics and therapeutics – were also interested in starting a company. Ursheet facilitated a set of conversations at the Mammoth office in Dogpatch, hosted the team at his home in SOMA, as well as at Stanley Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Through these discussions, the group found a deeply shared common ground to use these new technologies to have a positive impact on patients’ lives, and the rest is history: Trevor, Janice, Lucas and Jennifer combined forces to co-found Mammoth Biosciences.

The core mission that drove this alignment was the intense desire to help patients as quickly as possible, from disease detection to treatment, spanning diagnostics and therapeutics. “Ursheet shared and encouraged our vision to build something foundational from a general healthcare perspective, that would have a lasting positive impact on the world across many fronts,” says Trevor. Mayfield led a $23 million Series A which several seed and angel investors joined, including Apple’s Tim Cook.

Trevor Martin, Jennifer Doudna, Janice Chen, Ursheet Parikh, Maneesh Jain and Lucas Harrington at dinner
Dinner post the Series A partnership presentation on March 31 2018; left to right, Trevor, Jennifer, Janice, Ursheet, Maneesh Jain (advisor & co-founder of Mayfield company Mirvie) and Lucas.

Ursheet recalls his early meetings with Trevor. The 27-year-old biologist had just finished his PhD and showed an immense capacity to learn business. “Trevor is exceptionally self-aware, asked for help frequently, came up with creative solutions and followed up fast. When introduced to the best in class cofounders, advisors, mentors and service providers, he would inspire them to get involved and was magnanimous in sharing the platform.”

“Since no one before them had built a CRISPR platform company with such a diverse toolkit of proteins and potential, they were going to have to grow up quickly to make it happen. A company cannot grow faster than its founders” says Ursheet of his work since then with Trevor, Janice, who is the CTO, and Lucas, who is CSO. Jennifer continues to remain involved as co-founder and chair of the company’s scientific advisory board. Trevor, Janice and Lucas knew that they wanted to build a new type of biotech company not wedded to the typical playbooks often used for single-asset companies. The underlying science was too closely wedded to the business opportunity for that. To help them transition from scientists into business people, Ursheet spent time with the team to talk about everything from product strategy and business development to building a world-class team. “Mayfield was definitely the most proactive in terms of making themselves available to help,” says Trevor.

“Getting a PhD is really relevant to starting a company, because it helps you deal with uncertainty,” says Trevor. “But you can’t just read a bunch of books to learn how to manage people.” To help, Mayfield connected Trevor, Janice, and Lucas to John Baird, a veteran executive coach whose clients included Steve Jobs. “Mayfield also helped recruit key executives such as COO Ted Tisch and CBO Peter Nell and this unique combination of scientist founders and experienced executives working closely together is what makes the Mammoth story possible,” Trevor adds. And Navin continues to be a sounding board for strategy and growth conversations.

The relationship has been fruitful. Mammoth has rapidly morphed from a research project in the lab into one of the most promising, closely-watched life sciences businesses in the world. The company, which recently crossed 100 employees, continues to pioneer CRISPR technology and stand at the forefront of delivering on the promise of CRISPR through its therapeutic and diagnostic programs.

When COVID hit, Ursheet was one of the first to urge Mammoth’s founders to focus on creating a test for the disease. The company has a strong culture of accountability, and the founders were concerned that doing this would require delaying the timeline on some other goals set by the company. Also, it was unclear how these new Covid-19 products could get approved in time to help. “I remember a long call on Sunday afternoon in February 2020 to prioritize Covid-19 over existing diagnostic programs and making the case that it was ok to take the leap with or without a clear approval path. If there was ever going to be a time when new bio-platforms will get to patients fast, it will be during a pandemic. One of the silver linings of Covid-19 now is that we will get the first MRNA and CRISPR products for patients years ahead of the original schedule and this will save innumerable lives,” says Ursheet.

Mammoth has been the most prolific inventor of new CRISPR systems that have significantly expanded the conditions that can be treated and diagnosed. To translate this into patient impact fast, Mammoth is both developing these treatments in-house and also working closely with other biotech companies. Mammoth has developed partnerships for novel CRISPR products with leading healthcare companies including Glaxo-Smith Kline, MilliporeSigma, Hamilton Company, and Agilent Technologies. The company was awarded two contracts from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop and commercialize CRISPR-based diagnostics and biosurveillance platforms for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Even before the pandemic began, Ursheet encouraged and helped the Mammoth team to forge partnerships to demonstrate its leadership of a vast new ecosystem. In January, 2020, for example, Mammoth inked a deal with Horizon Discovery, a U.K.-based developer of biomanufacturing technologies that drug-makers can use to manufacture new treatments.

That would be more than enough of a contribution for any start-up. For Mammoth, it’s just the beginning. Beyond healthcare, Mammoth has the potential to power the next generation of companies working on improving the health of our planet with better foods. “I feel inspired and blessed to be supporting the mission of the stellar team at Mammoth,” says Ursheet.

Says Trevor: “It’s super valuable to have investors who suggest bold bets themselves and commit to supporting them.”