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Gene Hackers: The Young Biotech Entrepreneurs Looking To Make Billions By Editing Life Itself

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hen Rachel Haurwitz started her biology Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, the award-winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna suggested Haurwitz investigate part of a bacterial immune system. She studied how microbes store genetic mementos of attacking viruses and recognize them to fight off future assaults. “It was an esoteric project,” Haurwitz says. 

It’s esoteric no more. This system, called Crispr, has become one of the hottest technologies in biology, with the potential to give scientists control of the building blocks of life and give investors rich rewards. Crispr had no obvious relevance to human health when it was first described in 1987, but Doudna, who won the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for her Crispr work, and other pioneers have discovered ways to turn it into a gene-editing tool. Haurwitz and Doudna helped found Caribou Bio­sciences in 2011 to get in on the action. Haurwitz, still in her 20s, became CEO the next year. 

Haurwitz is not the only young entrepreneur who sees opportunity in gene editing. Doudna cofounded Mammoth Bio­sciences with some of her other doctoral students and two Stanford Ph.D.s. Trevor Martin, the company’s 30-year-old CEO, has raised $23 million from such investors as Apple CEO Tim Cook. In 2015, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 29-year-old Luhan Yang founded eGenesis with her mentor, Harvard geneticist George Church, to use Crispr to help transplant pig organs into people. Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg, also in their 20s, cofounded Sherlock Biosciences with another Crispr pioneer, 37-year-old Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

“They may be young, but in both cases these are people at the top of their game scientifically,” Doudna says of her cofounders. “They’re fearless in all the right ways and very aware of the ethical challenges.”   

Given that no one had built a Crispr company until a few years ago, “there’s maybe more of an opportunity for people with nontraditional backgrounds,” Haurwitz says.

Crispr is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It refers to the way bacteria store, in their genomes, snippets of viral DNA, like mug shots. Those markers are used to identify invaders that return, much as a human immune system uses telltale elements of a polio virus remembered from a vaccine.

If an invading virus matches a stored mug shot, enzymes associated with Crispr break the virus’ lethal DNA into harmless pieces. Doudna and others figured out how to use those enzymes to snip DNA at precise points in order to insert or modify genes. Thus does Crispr promise to make the expensive and buggy process of rewriting DNA easier, opening up new ways to treat dis­eases caused by genetic mutations, create cheaper diagnostic tests and engineer cells that kill cancer.

Eight years after its start in Berkeley, Caribou has raised $41 million and cut licensing deals—potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars—with DuPont Pioneer, Novartis and others. It’s starting to develop medical therapies.

Haurwitz grew up in Austin, Texas, and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard. She didn’t have a clear plan when she went on to UC Berkeley, but she thought she might later become a patent attorney. 

That thinking changed as her Ph.D. work got more exciting. Haurwitz and Doudna spent a lot of time talking about how they could repurpose Crispr for modifying genomes to cure disease. Program the naturally occurring Crispr system to cut the gene you want to modify, and it’s theoretically possible to use it to change the genetic code to either fix “misspellings” that cause illness or disrupt the production of an unwanted protein.

Caribou started out with the notion of making Crispr technology available for DNA editing in applications such as drug development, agriculture and basic biological research. Haurwitz’s cofounders didn’t want to leave academia and were “crazy enough to let a 26-year-old who had never worked for a company in her life take on the role of president and CEO,” she says. 

Haurwitz took a few business classes before getting her Ph.D., then pitched venture capitalists on funding a technology they didn’t really understand. Caribou was securing an exclusive license to some Crispr patents held by the University of California system and the University of Vienna. Still, “pretty much every VC we ­talked to kind of said, ‘Meh,’ ” Haurwitz remembers. This was 2012, and they thought she was overestimating Crispr’s potential. 

The papers that propelled Crispr into the limelight came the next year, and investor dollars and a wave of new companies quickly followed. Editas Medicine, cofounded by Sherlock’s Feng Zhang, raised $43 million to apply the technology to medical therapies. Next was Intellia Therapeutics, cofounded by Caribou, which raised $15 million in its 2014 launch. And Crispr Therapeutics, founded by Crispr pioneer Emmanuelle Charpentier, raised $89 million. The three went public in 2016 and now have a combined market capitalization of $3.8 billion.

Meanwhile, Haurwitz was being cold-called by plant-breeding and drug companies. DuPont led an $11 million investment in 2015. Caribou raised another $30 million the next year and has been able to sustain itself on that funding and payments from licensing and partnership deals.

Caribou licensed to Integrated DNA Technologies the right to sell biology researchers what they’d need for gene-editing experiments. Genus, an animal genetics firm, paid Caribou an undisclosed amount for the exclusive right to use its proprietary Crispr technology to engineer the genes of pigs and other livestock. Similarly, the Jackson Laboratory is paying Caribou to use Crispr to engineer new populations of research mice that model human diseases. 

Haurwitz will soon have to seek venture capital again, as Caribou has pivoted to drug development, which is expensive but potentially more lucrative. Her first focus: improve on existing cancer therapies that take patients’ immune cells and train them to attack cancer. Crispr, she says, could be used to edit the DNA of immune cells from healthy donors so that these cells could be given to any cancer patient. The company plans to start trials in humans next year. There’s competition, from Allogene Therapeutics and its partner Cellectis, which have a combined market cap of $3.9 billion.

Caribou is also developing a program in another buzzy area: the microbiome, or the many bacteria that inhabit all parts of the human body, particularly the gut. This time, investors know what Crispr is, and Haurwitz has already won some over. “She’s one of the few people that I’ve met in my life that is able to toggle between business talk and scientific talk in a heartbeat,” says Ambar Bhattacharyya, a Caribou investor at Maverick Ventures.

Beyond the competition, there is an intellectual property conflict. Overlapping patent claims from the University of California and the Broad Institute emerged for the foundational technology, which involves an enzyme called Cas9, used to cut DNA. A lawsuit between the institutions was decided in favor of the Broad, but the U.S. Patent Office has granted patents to both. UC’s patents claim broader rights than were demonstrated in its application, says Lisa Ouellette, a Stanford Law School professor, and could make them vulnerable to a legal challenge. (UC disagrees.)

Whoever owns the technology will command fat fees. Caribou might run trials related to a particular gene, but if other companies want to run trials related to other genes, they may have to approach Caribou, says Jacob Sherkow, a professor at New York Law School. “They’re going to have to pay handsomely.”

Legal battles aside, the new field risks public backlash. In November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced he’d used Crispr to tinker with the genomes of human embryos born as twin girls, thereby heightening pressure on ­Crispr scientists to consider the ethics of how they’re using the life-altering tech. Caribou’s license agreements include language to prevent its use on human embryos, Haurwitz says. 

Doudna says researchers need to vet the science of editing the genes of embryos, and then people need to discuss how to use it responsibly. “Are there real unmet medical needs that would require this kind of editing or not? I think that’s one question.”

Debate over the answer will shape Crispr’s path to commercialization, one that holds immense potential for its youthful founders—and the likelihood of yet more controversy and conflict.

-Michela Tindera;Forbes Staff

-Ellie Kincaid;Forbes Staff

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‘AI Is A Powerful Tool’

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Research forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans. Murat Sonmez, member of the managing board, and Head of the Centre for the WEF Fourth Industrial Revolution Network, expands on the role humans might play.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is at the center of the current economic frontier. In reality, is Africa prepared for such changes?

Moving quickly and being agile are key principles of success in the 4IR. Any country can succeed if they take on this mindset. A few years ago, Rwanda saw the opportunities drones, a 4IR technology, brought to their country.

They helped save over 800 lives by delivering blood to remote villages. To scale this, the government worked with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) drones’ team to create the world’s first agile airspace regulation. Now, we see countries in Africa and around the world looking to the Rwandan model.

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What feasible solutions can  artificial intelligence (AI) offer in terms of forecasting natural disasters, droughts food security on the African continent?

AI can help predict diseases, increase agriculture yields and help first responders. It is a powerful tool for governments and businesses, but it needs a lot of data to be effective.

For AI to be all that it can be, countries and companies need to work together to build frameworks for better management and protection of our data and ensure that it is shared and not stored in silos. Data is the oxygen of the (4IR). If countries do not leverage data and have their policies in place, they will be left behind.

There is a growing concern that the 4IR will strip people of jobs, of which there is already a shortage. How true is this?

The world is going through a workplace revolution that will bring a seismic shift in the way humans work alongside machines and algorithms.

Latest research from the WEF forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans, compared to 71% being performed by humans today.

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The rapid evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles in place of 75 million that will be displaced between now and 2022.

Consumers have real concerns around the potential harm technology can cause in areas such as privacy, misinformation, surveillance, job loss, environmental damage and increased inequality. What ethical precautions are being considered in the robotics space?

Now more than ever, it is important to incorporate ethics into the design, deployment and use of emerging technology. Innovating in the 4IR requires addressing concerns around privacy and data ownership, while attracting the skills and forward-looking thinkers of the future.

There are big challenges and bigger opportunities ahead. We have seen many companies and countries create ethical and human rights-based frameworks. What’s important is they are co-designed with members of both communities along with academia, civil society and start-ups.

A multi-stakeholder approach will result in a more holistic set of guidelines and principles that can be adopted in many different industries and geographies.

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What changes need to take place for the African continent to be on par with global developments, and are there tangible goals set?

The 4IR provides governments the opportunity to be global leaders in shaping the next 20 to 30 years of science and technology. It is important they create an environment where companies can innovate.

The other tenet is to be open to working across borders and learning from each other. The global health industry has access to mountains of data on rare diseases, but it is trapped within countries and sometimes even within the hospital walls.

If we can build trust and find innovative ways to share the data while protecting privacy, we can employ tools like AI to help us cure disease faster. Countries and companies need to have the right governance frameworks and mechanisms in place for these breakthroughs to happen. It is possible to do these things now, but we need to work together to make it happen.

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Businesses At The Heart Of A Greener Future

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With every day that passes by it becomes more apparent that the Earth is deteriorating and time is running out to save it. Scientists have estimated that we have less than a decade to save the planet before it is irreversibly damaged, mainly due to climate change.

Businesses claim the largest percentage of global emissions (at approximately 70% since 1988, according to The Guardian) which is an alarming statistic, especially in a time when the planet’s well-being is being compromised.

Many large business corporations are hastily coming on board with operating sustainably by transforming their practices and placing business ethics at the forefront of their priorities.

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Last week, a round table discussion was held at the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel, Sandton hosted by Environmental Resources Management (ERM) – the world’s largest sustainability consulting firm. Their aim was to discuss how imperative it is for African businesses to get on board with sustainability.

“We have been talking about how to be sustainable for a long time but now it is time for us to do sustainability,” says Thapelo Letete, Technical Director of ERM.

An engaging and thought-provoking panel discussion ensued with representatives from ERM and mining companies, Anglo American and Gold Fields. They emphasized the importance of sustainability being recognized by investors, especially in mining and oil companies that rely solely on Earth’s natural resources.

Civil society has a colossal role to play in ensuring the sustainability of businesses. Due to the law of supply and demand in production, consumers are being urged to be mindful of their buying habits and to make sustainable decisions. These are as simple as minimizing the utilization of plastic straws by replacing them with metal or paper straws and reusable shopping bags and by recycling selected items.

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“Research suggests that socially and environmentally responsible practices have the potential to garner more positive consumer perceptions of (businesses), as well as increases in profitability,” according to an entry in Sage Journals published in May.

The advancement of science, artificial intelligence and the rapid growth of the technological industry make it an undeniable fact that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway. Many businesses across the globe seem to be well prepared for this change. However, businesses in Africa seem to be vulnerable. 

“It is difficult to say that all businesses in Africa are prepared for it. It is not a country specific thing but it does vary across corporations. There will be businesses that are well prepared and businesses that are not so well prepared,” says Keryn James, CEO of ERM.

A large part of sustainability also relies on empowerment and equality. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of female-owned businesses who contribute a large amount of money towards their respective countries’ GDPs. However, most of these businesses struggle with the issue of scaling.

“Women sometimes underestimate their ability and they don’t necessarily  have the confidence that they should have about the value that their businesses present. Women often take less risks than men,” says James.

“The issue of scaling is one that we see globally. One of the issues are access to funding to support in the investment and growth of their businesses.”

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Going forward, the availability of mentorship programmes and skills development opportunities for women, especially black women in business should be encouraged.

According to a study done by the UN Women’s organization, an average of 3 out of 7 women score higher in performance when they are placed in senior managerial positions. Additionally, if more women work, the more countries can exponentially maximise their economic growth.

Women will be empowered when given the correct skills and opportunities to be able to run their own businesses independently which would ultimately lead to the scaling of female-owned businesses in Africa and sustainable development.

The Nedbank Capital Sustainable Business Awards aim to recognize the efforts of businesses that operate sustainably and to encourage other corporations who intend to adopt more sustainable strategies into their practices. Initiatives such as these prove that business value also depends on how sustainable they are.

It is clear that the prioritization of sustainability and accountability in businesses is the only way forward in the midst of this global crisis. With a combination of will and the rigorous work that African businesses have put into sustainability initiatives and strategies, it is easier to be optimistic about our planet’s wellbeing.

-Buhle Ntusi

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Ex-Google Staffer Says After Split With Chief Legal Officer David Drummond: ‘Hell Does Not Begin To Capture My Life’

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Former Google employee Jennifer Blakely has written a scathing blog post with allegations about how her affair with chief legal officer David Drummond unfolded.


A former member of Google’s legal team who says she had a child with the company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, has written a scathing blog post about the way that their relationship unfolded within the search engine giant, including that he issued “terrifying threats” to take custody of their child after initially refusing to pay child support.

In a Medium post, Jennifer Blakely says that she was inspired to detail her experience after an explosive New York Times story last fall put a spotlight on how the company shielded top executives from harassment claims and sparked massive employee protests.

“Looking back, I see how standards that I was willing to indulge early on became institutionalized behavior as Google’s world prominence grew and its executives grew more powerful,” Blakely writes.

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“Women that I worked with at Google who have spoken to me since the New York Times article have told me how offended they were by the blatant womanizing and philandering that became common practice among some (but certainly not all) executives, starting at the very top.” 

While her relationship with the married Drummond was included in the Times story and first reported byThe Information in November 2017, this is the first time Blakely has written about the experience herself.

Drummond is one of several current and former Google executives who has reportedly had relationships with employees or extramarital affairs, including Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin, and Andy Rubin.

READ MORE | Calling Out Sexual Harassment

Blakely alleges that after their relationship ended, Drummond had another relationship with a subordinate, which is against Google’s workplace policy. He is still employed by Google and made more than $47 million last year. 

Blakely says that she started working in Google’s legal department under Drummond in 2001 and that after he told her that he was estranged from his wife, they began a relationship in 2004. She says the two had a child together in 2007 and that Google’s human resources department then told her that one of them had to leave the department.

She moved to sales, an area where she had no experience, and subsequently struggled with her work. Blakely alleges that after she ultimately left the company at Drummond’s urging in 2008, but that while they were living together in Palo Alto, he broke off their relationship via text message.

“‘Hell’ does not begin to capture my life since that day,” she writes. “I’ve spent the last 11 years taking on one of the most powerful, ruthless lawyers in the world. From that fateful night forward, David did things exclusively on his terms.” 

She alleges that Drummond initially refused to see their son or pay child support, and then fought against her in a custody battle. While she says they ultimately reached a settlement and he began paying child support, she writes that “months or years” would go by when he wouldn’t see their son. In 2014, Drummond allegedly showed her an article about Eric Schmidt’s reported history of extramarital affairs during an argument, implying that the executive’s position granted him impunity.

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“His ‘personal life’ (which apparently didn’t include his son) was off limits and since I was no longer his ‘personal life’ it was time for me to shut up, fall in line and stop bothering him with the nuisances or demands of raising a child,” Blakely writes.

Blakely’s story is the latest in a string of public posts from former Google employees highlighting issues with the company’s culture and policies (or their lack of enforcement).

One of the women who helped organize last fall’s protests, Claire Stapelton, recently wrote about her experience with retaliation, another employee detailed the disappointing way the company’s human resources department dealt with her harassment reports, and former senior engineer Liz Fong-Jones posted about “grave concerns” with the company’s decision making in general.

The outspokenness of Google employees exemplifies — and has helped spur — a broader activism in the tech sector that has seen workers speaking out against their employer’s internal policies and business decisions.

Blakely’s post also taps into the larger #MeToo movement which has drawn attention to sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace across industries.

“Until truth is willing to speak to power and is heard, there’s not going to be the sea change necessary to bring equality to the workplace,” she writes.

Neither Google nor Drummond immediately responded to a request for comment. 

This story is developing.

-Jillian D’Onfro; Forbes

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