In The X-Files, the FBI was obsessed with sci-fi and the supernatural. In real life, the CIA is the government agency dipping into the fantastical with an interest in Dallas-based Colossal Biosciences’ ambitious project to revive the long-extinct woolly mammoth. The CIA isn’t alone — Colossal has raised $75 million so far.
Colossal Biosciences was launched in September 2021 after a seed funding round of $15 million led by At One Ventures, Animal Capital, Thomas Tull, and legendary investors Tim Draper and James Breyer, as well as the Winklevoss twins investor team, motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and several venture capitalists. More recently, Paris Hilton joined the fray when another $60 million was raised through a Series A funding round. “With this most recent financing, Colossal is positioned to realize long-researched breakthroughs that can support the restoration of healthy ecosystems. We will soon have the choice of moving from the role of blind destroyer of the world’s species toward being the thoughtful kin of all the life around us,” said Colossal investor Tom Chi, founding partner at At One Ventures.
The interest of In-Q-Tel, the CIA-registered nonprofit venture capital firm, certainly is intriguing. “In-Q-Tel regularly co-invests alongside other venture capital and private sector investors, serving as a force multiplier in the VC community,” the venture capital firm says. “In fact, every $1 invested by In-Q-Tel leverages $18 in private sector investment.”
‘Less About the Mammoth, More About the Capability’
Established in 1999, In-Q-Tel aims to ensure that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have access to the latest innovative technologies from Silicon Valley and beyond. Located in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., the organization, named after the fictional tech genius Q in the James Bond books and movies, has recently demonstrated a growing interest in biosciences, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also has a dedicated division, B. Next, which aims to integrate biology and technology into the fabric of national security. “Strategically, it’s less about the mammoths and more about the capability,” wrote In-Q-Tel senior VP of technology Kevin O’Connell and senior partner Eugene Chiu in a blog post. “The next wave of progress in [synthetic biology] will lead to advances in our ability to shape both form and function in organisms at the macroscopic level.”
In-Q-Tel already boasts a portfolio of 20 biotechnology companies on its website. Alongside Colossal Biosciences are companies like LinKinVax, which is “creating a unique platform for rapid development of highly versatile and efficient vaccines”; Ginkgo Bioworks, which “programs cells to make everything from food to materials to therapeutics”; and Boreal Genomics, which is “developing new technologies for blood-based detection and monitoring of circulating tumor DNA.” Following the release of the executive order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy by the Biden administration, it is ever clearer that the U.S. government is looking to lead the biotechnology industry in the future.
A Colossal (Biosciences) Undertaking
Founded by Harvard University geneticist George Church, Ph.D., and technology entrepreneur and CEO Ben Lamm, Colossal Biosciences looks to employ CRISPR — a revolutionary gene-editing technology — to breed an elephant-mammoth hybrid that can thrive in the Arctic tundra of Siberia, Russia. Scientists will transfer a hybrid Asian-woolly mammoth embryo into a healthy Asian elephant surrogate, trying to replicate features of the woolly mammoth that promote cold-resistance and foraging activities, aiming to revitalize a degrading ecosystem. The woolly mammoth, which became extinct around 4,000 years ago, played a vital role in maintaining balance in the Arctic tundra through its grazing habits, dung fertilization, and seed dispersal. Church believes that beyond its scientific benefits, successfully breeding a mammoth hybrid could lead to a reversal of the rapidly warming tundra and help the environment.
“Our goal is in the successful de-extinction of interbreed-able herds of mammoths that we can leverage in the re-wilding of the Arctic. And then we want to leverage those technologies for what we’re calling thoughtful, disruptive conservation,” tech entrepreneur and Colossal Biosciences’ Lamm told CNBC.
CRISPR, the technology behind the project, has already revolutionized the field of genetic engineering. It is a powerful tool that allows scientists to make precise edits to the DNA of living organisms. At its core, CRISPR technology uses a guide RNA (gRNA) that binds to a specific location in the DNA. This gRNA acts as a sort of GPS, guiding an enzyme (such as Cas9) to the exact spot where the DNA needs to be edited. Once the enzyme reaches the desired location, it cuts the DNA, which creates a break in the strand. This break allows for the insertion, deletion, or replacement of specific DNA sequences. This process is known as genome editing.
Colossal’s mission to bring back the woolly mammoth will not only allow humans to experience a species long extinct but will also serve as a means of preserving the genetic legacy of the endangered Asian elephant. Astronaut Richard Garriott said, “If you think about the most important headline of the 20th century, unquestionably it was humans landing on the moon. In the 21st century, bringing an extinct species back to life would hold similar weight in the history of humanity. It is hard to imagine a more profound project than the de-extinction of species once considered lost forever.”
Church is best known for his contributions to the Human Genome Project and his work in developing new technologies for DNA sequencing and synthesis. After spending eight years working on his de-extinction proposal, investor Lamm visited his lab and was in awe with what he saw. “After about a day of being in the lab and spending a lot of time with George, we were pretty passionate on pursuing this,” Lamm said. Lamm, who is the founder of Hypergiant, has built and sold three companies: Conversable (acquired by LivePerson), Chaotic Moon Studios (acquired by Accenture), and Team Chaos (acquired by Zynga).
“These two are a powerhouse team who have the ability to completely shift our understanding of modern genetics while developing innovative technologies that not only help bring back lost species but advance the entire industry,” Robbins told TechCrunch. “I am proud to be an investor in their journey.”