Long before Covid-19 defined a year, CEO Trevor Martin and his colleagues at Mammoth Biosciences Inc. were tapping the groundbreaking CRISPR genome-editing technology to make disease detection as simple as at-home pregnancy tests.
Mammoth had raised $23 million and was on its way to announcing a $45 million Series B round when Dr. Charles Chiu — a University of California, San Francisco, infectious diseases expert and a member of the company’s scientific advisory board — raised the alarm in late January about a mysterious coronavirus starting to spread, with deadly consequences, beyond its origins in Wuhan, China.
Martin and the company’s co-founders had an immediate thought: What if tiny Mammoth could develop a test that could quickly unmask this virus? In addition to the public health benefits, success would allow it to leapfrog classic diagnostics companies and help demonstrate the potential of Mammoth’s CRISPR technology beyond drug development.
After Chiu pulled the team’s attention to the Covid-causing virus, Mammoth went all in. Within a couple weeks, it had produced a white paper about CRISPR’s ability to detect Covid; by mid-April, Mammoth’s work with 100 Covid patient samples was peer reviewed in the journal Nature Biotechnology, an important step toward validating its science.
“We never could have predicted Covid when we started, but as we saw the pandemic unfolding, it became very clear to the founding team that that is exactly the situation that CRISPR-based diagnostics was made for,” Martin said. “Because CRISPR is a reprogrammable protein, we knew that designing a new guide for Covid was something we could do rapidly.”
Less than a year later, Mammoth has an emergency use authorization from the FDA to use its test to detect active SARS-CoV-2 — the novel coronavirus that has now infected more than 80 million people globally — and a deal with life sciences giant GlaxoSmithKline plc to develop an easy-to-use, fully disposable, rapid handheld test for the general public and health care professionals. It’s also landed a spot with three other Bay Area Covid diagnostics developers in a National Institutes of Health RADx program to accelerate the number of detected coronavirus infections.
Meanwhile, CRISPR won a Nobel Prize in October for co-inventors Emmanuelle Charpentier and UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna, who leads Mammoth’s scientific advisory board. The company’s investors include Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, legendary venture capitalist Brook Byers and Verily Life Sciences, which also is Mammoth’s landlord in South San Francisco.
For all that star power, Mammoth remains a small company. Its workforce has nearly tripled in the last year to 70. As an essential business, it was able to stay open through the various lockdowns. Mammoth has gobbled up more space, both to accommodate its growing workforce and to keep them socially distanced.
They’ve been working harder than ever, Martin said, analyzing data from home after hours or texting colleagues through the weekend. Sixty-hour workweeks are not uncommon.
“It’s been stimulating and uplifting,” Martin said — though also exhausting.
In 2021, Mammoth’s work will continue with MilliporeSigma and Hamilton Co. to commercialize what is now known as Mammoth’s Detectr Boost test, Martin said. It also will continue work with GSK on an at-home test and with the NIH to speed development of the Covid test for central labs.
“This is a testament to the insane amount of work of the Mammoth team,” Martin said. “We did in seven to eight months what companies companies do in seven years.”
Five questions with Trevor Martin
What has it been like to work through the Covid pandemic and try to solve the Covid pandemic? “We’re very lucky to work in a space and technology where we can have an impact, but it also takes time to get people to focus on themselves and support each other.”
How do you get employees to step away? “Talking about it. It’s not a taboo subject. The main thing is leading by example and being sure people see that others are taking time to recharge. We have aggressive times and milestones that the team is doing an amazing job at hitting, but it’s really a marathon, not just a sprint.”
What’s a part of 2020 that you’ll always remember? “It comes down to the team and camaraderie. Teams are forged in fire. There are huge challenges in the group across high-throughput testing, disposable testing, the editing program. It’s rare to be a true cutting-edge science and cutting-edge product company. We lived through that right now.”
How hard has this been? “There’s ‘type 1’ fun and ‘type 2’ fun: Type 1 relaxes eating ice cream; type 2 relaxes by running a marathon. Afterwards, you look back and appreciate it and how you’ve grown and, hopefully, you accomplished something amazing. We all like type 2 fun — it’s hard but it’s worth doing.”
How have you grown? “I’ve learned to trust a lot more. I’m opening up to rely on others, which can be a vulnerable spot to be in, but that’s how you build the world’s best companies. If you bring people together from around the work and allow them to do the most awesome things possible, that’s how you make magic happen.”