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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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Google Is Making Android As Difficult To Hack As iPhone—And Cops Are Suffering

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Apple makes the most secure phones in the world. At least, that’s the common assumption.

But increasingly Android models are as difficult, if not trickier, to break into as the iPhone, according to search warrants and forensic industry sources.

One warrant unearthed by Forbes detailed a case in which cops seized an LG Android phone after swooping on suspected drug dealer, Angel Angulo, who’d allegedly sold methamphetamine to an undercover cop. Upon Angulo’s arrest the police obtained the phone from inside the his Ford Mustang, though the search warrant didn’t detail what exact LG model.

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The police obtained the LG in January and even had permission to force open the device by holding it up to Angulo’s face or depressing his fingerprint to unlock with facial or fingerprint recognition.

But agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have not been able to find a way to bypass the lock screen with their current forensic tools and techniques.

They’ve now asked for an additional 120 days to access the device, according to a filing from the ATF. (No legal representation was listed for the defendant. The Department of Justice hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication).

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iPhones less secure than Android now?

Sources in the forensics community tell Forbes that the security of Google’s operating system has become, in some cases, too strong to allow police (or anyone else with direct access to an Android phone) inside. “Some would say iPhones are less secure,” said one source from a large forensics provider.

Google, like Apple, has been continually adding security features to Android, said Vladimir Katalov, CEO of Russian forensics provider Elcomsoft. One of the key updates to Android over the years remains Secure Startup, which encrypts all internal storage so the data within should be accessible only to someone with a passcode or other form of authentication, like a face or a finger.

The anonymous source noted that a considerable amount of resources go into penetrating the defenses of iPhone operating systems, and once a hack works on one iOS device, it should work on all the others. The same cannot be said for Android, which is fragmented across manufacturers’ home-brew updates and countless phone models. If a police officer or forensics professional finds a way to break into a Google Pixel, for instance, the same hack might not work on any other devices.

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“While some Android phones can be accessed using generic methods, each new model may contain unique features which require a more customized approach,” said Peter Sommer, professor of digital forensics at Birmingham City University in the U.K. “In addition there are instances of standard Android phones being heavily modified to have secure features.”

The issue of Android security is particularly pressing for Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of Android phones, which is set to lose access to Google’s security updates on newer devices. That’s because of the Trump administration’s ban on American companies doing business with the Chinese telecoms giant.

iPhone still trumps Android in some cases, though. When Forbes tested a range of Android phones’ facial recognition systems, there were clear disparities in the security of the technology across the different devices. A 3D-printed head was able to open all the Android phones tested, but it worked much quicker and in all light conditions on a OnePlus 6, whereas Samsung and LG phones were tougher to crack. Forbes also tested Apple’s facial recognition with the fake head. In that case, it proved impenetrable.

Thomas Brewster;Forbes Staff

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The 4IR Strategy To Move Forward

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South Africa has created the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, chairs this commission and I am the Deputy Chairman. The commission consists of 30 members.

It is tasked with developing South Africa’s strategy around the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Why this commission and why is the 4IR so important? To answer these questions, we ought to understand first what the 4IR is and what it entails.

As a point of departure, we ought to understand the first, second and third industrial revolutions. The British scientific revolution that gave us Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, gravitation and the study of heat, catalysed the first industrial revolution.

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The first industrial revolution gave us coal-powered steam engines that drove trains and ushered the era of using machines to produce goods and services. The luddites, who were a group of activists hell-bent on stopping the first industrial revolution, disappeared into the ash heap of history and the technological revolution marched on.

The scientific revolution that facilitated us to leverage magnetic and electrical forces called electromagnetism ushered the second industrial revolution. Electromagnetism gave us electricity and an electric motor, and these, in turn, spurred the development of the assembly line, which vastly improved production and introduced mass production in factories.

The discovery of semiconductors and the invention of a transistor in the United States (US) ushered the electronic age, which gave us computers, mobile phones, and ultimately led to the invention of the internet.

Seventy years after the discovery of a transistor, there is no significant semiconductor company on the African continent. To solve this serious gap in the political economy of the African continent, industries, society and universities on the continent must come together to develop a strategy and the plan of action on how the continent should enter the primary economy of the third industrial revolution.

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The 4IR is a confluence of digital technologies of the third industrial revolution, developments in biotechnology through innovations such as molecular motors, as well as the developments in the physical space through breakthroughs in new materials and robotics technologies.

One of the technologies driving the 4IR is artificial intelligence (AI). Because of AI, machines are gaining intelligence and thus planes are intelligently flying with minimal interference by pilots, the factory floor is increasingly automating, and self-driving cars are reaching maturity. AI is revolutionizing the medical field and making careers such as radiology redundant.

The implications of the 4IR will be extensive. It will reduce the world of work and usher a post-work era, where factories will employ fewer people than ever before. The presidential commission should study this post-work era and the impact thereof on the labor market, equality and tax collection.

This commission will explore the viability of strategies such as the introduction of universal basic income, virtual economic zones and imposing tax on robots in order to prevent the escalation of poverty and inequality.

In the 4IR era, some jobs will disappear, some will change and new types of jobs will be created. It is important that the presidential commission study these changes and design a strategy on how we should move forward. This should include the identification of the required set of skills in order to thrive in the 4IR, and the mechanisms in which the education sector should plan for the development of such skills.      

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Kai-Fu Lee, the Chairman of the World Economic Forum Council on Artificial Intelligence, wrote in his influential book, AI Superpowers, that in the 4IR, data is becoming the new oil. Countries and companies, such as the US, China, Google, Facebook, and Alibaba, which collect more data will become so powerful that they will influence all aspects of our lives.

The company Cambridge Analytica allegedly influenced the US election through data analytics.

This commission should study and recommend how South Africa should position itself with respect to defence, peace, security, industry, trade, society and politics in the light of the 4IR. Failure to capture this 4IR moment will relegate us to the dustbin of history.

– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

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‘A Tweet Can Tank An Economy’

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Many perspectives have been shared on influencer marketing, but very few from the brands themselves. What are its business imperatives and ROI?


In the heart of Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile, is Brittany Preece, a social media manager at Investec Bank.

As part of the Private Banking marketing team, Preece and her team have managed to successfully implement disruptive digital strategies to meet the growth objectives of the bank.

Traditionally, the role of marketing has been to support business objectives. Yet when companies experience financial difficulty, more often than not, marketing is seen to be the first in line on the chopping block. As a way of adapting to this reality, most marketing managers have had to look at cost-effective, yet creative, ways of achieving business impact.

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Social and digital media have given room for new ways businesses can engage and sell to their customers.

Increasingly gaining traction in South Africa is influencer marketing, an entirely new branch of the sales and marketing funnel which has seen brands leverage popular personalities on social media to promote their products and services online. Globally, the influencer marketing industry is forecast to be worth $5 billion to $10 billion by 2020, according to a study by Mediakix.

For Investec, attracting and diversifying into new markets has informed their decision to leverage influencers as part of their marketing strategy.

“Since 2015, we as Investec, have predominantly used influencer marketing to reach the young professional audience,” Preece says.

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“We (Investec Private Bank) have recently evolved our qualifying criteria. We’re no longer just the preferred banking partner for accountants, engineers, lawyers, doctors and actuaries. We’re positioned to be the bank of choice for those who are under the age of 30, consistently earning more than R600,000 ($42,582)a year, with a university degree and working in their area of expertise.”

Seated in front of a glass wall which looks out to a view of a bustling and upbeat office environment, she elaborates that to effectively reach the young professionals’ target market, it is important to identify individuals that can speak to that audience.

“What influencer marketing gives you, that a lot of the other marketing channels can’t, is great reach and engagement with your target audience. Using [influencers] brings a lot of authenticity to the brand, where Investec Private Banking was seen as unattainable to a lot of young professionals,” Preece says.

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In the digital universe, content is king. Authenticity is paramount. A study conducted by the Mobile Marketing Association reported that most consumers have banner blindness and suffer from advertising fatigue. They cannot recall the last digital banner ad that they saw.

Ad-blocking continues to be a growing phenomenon, further demonstrating the shift in consumer behavior. Consumers simply don’t want to be marketed to. To this effect, influencers assist brands to reach their customers through content that is more relevant to those consumers.

According to Business Insider’s 2018 Influencer Marketing Report: Research, Strategy & Platforms for Leveraging Social Media Influencers, the average social media engagement rate from influencer marketing averages 5.7% per post.

This is a feat compared to content generated by brands which fluctuates around 2% – 3% per post.

With this in mind, it’s even more essential for brands to involve influencers upfront to co-create an envisioned campaign.

“You want your influencer to buy into what you stand for as a brand. It shouldn’t be a hard sell – consumers see through that. If not done properly, it can look very fake and [we] never want to make it feel like an ad,” Preece says.

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Brands and agencies measure awareness and engagement by analyzing a few parameters, including, inter alia, number of likes, comments, shares and followers. Proponents of this theory believe an increase in these parameters lead to brand success.

Detractors of the theory believe awareness and engagement alone are not sufficient indicators of brand success. “Likes and follows are unimpressive without an increase in the bottom line,” says Sinesipho Maninjwa, a financial analyst and commentator.

But technology has its limitations. Dianne Joseph, the Commercial Director of Digital at Nielsen, a leading global information, data and measurement company, elaborates that there are real challenges in measuring sales attribution as a result of influencer marketing.

“The influencer models are difficult to measure because most influencers use their own personal pages to post, and these organic posts don’t offer us the opportunity to implement a tag (for tracking purposes) and, therefore, we aren’t able to track the outcomes,” Joseph says.

The ability to measure what is happening on and off digital platforms, or across social media platforms, is a challenge that most digital marketers face. Different platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have their own unique methods of tracking and storing data. The link between these platforms is, therefore, a lot more tenuous.

But in support of influencer marketing, a number of global studies have come out and shown that influencer marketing does yield a positive return on investment (ROI).

Pierre Cassuto, of social media influencer platform Humanz, who recently set up shop in South Africa from Tel Aviv in Israel, believes that the use of influencers can lead to increased sales. “In the US market, there is about a four times ROI on money spent in the influencer marketing space for retailers, cosmetics and FMCG brands,” he adds.

Cassuto agrees that engagement on its own doesn’t yield conversion. For influencer marketing to yield conversion, the message being broadcast by influencers has to be well thought out and carefully constructed to achieve that objective.

There has to be a reason for someone to do something now as opposed to anytime. That can be around creating urgency around something specific, it can be around creating a limited time availability offer.

Essentially, brands can become creative and purposeful in how they design their entire campaign to track conversion from the ground up. “The way we suggest measuring conversion is by making sure that the influencers have a way that [brands] can track the relationship between the influencers post and the actual conversion,” Cassuto says.

The first looks at providing the influencer a coupon code that they can distribute and share. In doing so, the specific brands will know that the people who redeemed the coupon code came from the influencers. The second options measures sell over time related to increase in traffic due to influencer marketing towards a landing page that the brand is driving to. With this, Cassuto states that brands can do A/B testing to see the impact on days influencers are posting and days when they’re not.

With all the advantages of influencer marketing, should brands solely invest in this sales channel?

Preece firmly holds the view that influencer marketing on its own isn’t the be all and end all. “I do believe that it should be a mix. I believe that an integrated marketing plan that uses out-of-home, billboards, TV and digital is where you see the most results.”

“Things can go wrong with influencer marketing. You are putting faith and trust into a human being who is imperfect. We have a saying: A tweet can tank an economy,” Preece says.

With consumers becoming increasingly selective about what they consume, influencer marketing continues to grow as an attractive sales channel. It is imperative that brands place the necessary care and due diligence before partnering with any influencer.

The perfect fit between an influencer and the brand will determine the overall ROI. After all, effective influencer marketing is the online equivalent of the highly valuable word-of-mouth advertising that marketers have always coveted.

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