Inside Colossal Biosciences and the business of de-extinction
Nora chats with Ben Lamm, founder and CEO of Colossal Biosciences, a company that is focused on using genomics and synthetic biology to prevent—and in some cases reverse—extinction. Ben discusses Colassal’s keystone projects: bringing back the woolly mammoth and the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger. For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out realvision.com/businesscasual.
Host: Nora Ali
Producer: Olivia Meade
Video Editor: Sebastian Vega
Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus
Fact Checker: Kate Brandt
Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop
VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer
Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm
Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now let's get down to business.
We talk about a lot of practical, relatable business topics on this show. What's the deal with the real estate market? How do you fight fake information online? How do you build a half-billion-dollar beauty business from scratch? But once in a while there's a concept that is so cool and sort of mind-blowing that we just have to dive into the business behind it. And today we are talking about the business of de-extinction.
You heard that right. Colossal Biosciences is a company that is focused on using fancy biology to prevent—and in some cases reverse—extinction. Founded and helmed by technology entrepreneur Ben Lamm, the company's keystone projects are currently aimed at bringing back the woolly mammoth, which went extinct approximately 10,500 years ago as the earth was exiting the Ice Age. And they plan to bring back the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, which was declared extinct in 1936.
So you might be asking, and I was wondering too, what is the point of a de-extinction company besides bringing us closer to a real-life Jurassic Park? Well, broadly speaking, Colossal is building technologies to advance the field of genomics. In simple terms, that's the study of an organism's genetic material. One use case for reviving the woolly mammoth is to save critically endangered elephants that are walking our earth today. And the preservation of those elephants is essential to maintaining a biodiversity of the ecosystems of this great planet. In other words: Bring back the woolly mammoth, save the planet.
These efforts are being made at a crucial time. Scientists have reported that we are in the midst of a mass extinction, primarily driven by, you guessed it, humans. Ben Lamm teamed up with Harvard geneticist George Church, who is widely recognized for his contributions to genomic science, chemistry, and biomedicine, and helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005.
Ben argues that the same technologies Colossal is using in de-extinction research have human healthcare and agricultural applications, like curing diseases that require multiple gene edits. Now this plan is not without controversy or criticism from bioethicists, which we'll get into, but regardless of where you lie on this particular ethic spectrum, it is wildly fascinating that anyone is even attempting this. I sincerely hope, by now, you're wondering how the heck de-extinction is actually done, and how someone goes about convincing investors that it's a worthwhile endeavor, and how one might monetize such a great feat. We learned about all of that in this conversation, plus why Colossal enlisted influencers to spread the word about de-extinction. Trust me: Even if you're not a science nerd, you will be hooked during this episode and hopefully tell your friends all about it. All of that and more is next, after the break.
Ben, welcome to Business Casual. Before we get into the fun genomics and woolly mammoth conversation, I'd like to start with an icebreaker. It's called OG Occupations. So Ben, what was your very first job you ever had?
Ben Lamm: I worked at Sonic. So, I was a delivery person at Sonic. And I got fired. I was terrible. I was the worst. I think I lasted two weeks.
Nora Ali: Oh, why were you so bad?
Ben Lamm: I don't know. I think it was the change, and like taking the orders, I don't know. It was a very chaotic environment, which was weird because entrepreneurship is a chaotic environment. But I worked at Sonic for two weeks. But I worked on the cool side, the other side where you drive around in high school to the backside of Sonic. But yeah, I lasted a solid two weeks maybe, at best.
Nora Ali: And look at you now. You've picked yourself back up. Okay, so let's get to it, Ben. There's an increasing number of companies in the genomic sector. We hear that word a lot these days. But what exactly is genomics, and why did you decide to get into this business?
Ben Lamm: We've all heard about genomics and kind of the promise of gene therapies and how we're going to be able to edit our genomes and create drugs that are customized for us, back in the nineties. But none of that really came true. Parts of it came true, but the height never really was delivered upon. And so for me, I was actually interested initially...and I reached out to George, not about genomics per se, but to talk about building a computational biology company. So how we could leverage AI and software at the intersection of genetics and genomics to see how we could actually create molecules and make edits leveraging software. I do think the intersection of automation and AI and even synthetic biology is very, very interesting. I didn't know that this would be the biotech or genomics company that I'd be building, around de-extinction, but after one meeting with George, he got me pretty hooked on it.
Nora Ali: So, this is George Church. He's the Harvard geneticist. So what did you discuss with him and how did that lead to Colossal? Explain what Colossal's mission is.
Ben Lamm: Colossal is a biosciences company that's focused on leveraging synthetic biology tools to stop and reverse extinction. So we call ourselves a de-extinction company. We are working on two keystone de-extinction projects. One, bringing back the woolly mammoth, and two, bringing back the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. My last company was a defense company, but we had an R&D lab that was actually working on photo-robotic AI-based algae bio-reactors to combat climate change, with also secondary applications for CO2 scrubbing for the space station and others.
So I reached out to George to see, is there a way that we could make genetically modified algae to make that system even more efficient. And then I wanted to talk to him about computational biology and whatnot. And so, in that conversation I started learning all the interesting things he has working on his lab, but his voice changed when he started talking about this mammoth project...it was the last thing he talked about and he was like, "Oh, and we also have this..." It was almost like the Steve Jobs's "One more thing." And he was like, "Oh, and we also have this other project that's been my passion project." And then his voice completely changed and we started talking about the mammoth. And I remember hanging up the phone, I was like, "I'm really interested."
George Church: We're trying to make cold-resistant elephants that fill that ecological niche. They don't have to be perfect copies of mammoth. Just good enough to do their job that they used to do over 10 to 20 million square kilometers of Arctic.
Ben Lamm: So I started googling all about it, reading about it. And when George said that we have all the technologies to do it, we just don't have the right focus and funding, we just need to bring the right people together and bring the right money together, I was like, "Well, that's really an entrepreneur problem. That's not a science gate problem." And so I stayed up all night researching it and then booked a ticket. And two weeks later I was in his lab. And a day after that, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I gotta leave my current job and go follow George." And so, that's kind of the religion that I got.
Nora Ali: That's incredible. Had George tried to raise funds before and people just didn't believe in it or the value in it? Or how did he even get to that point?
Ben Lamm: I don't think people saw, really, the monetization aspects of it. I think people believe George. George has a history of people saying, "Oh, that's impossible. You can't do that." And then he said it's almost like baseball cards. He loves when people say that, because he's like, "I just print those out and put them on my wall and then I invent the future." And then people are like, "Ah, he did it again." So I think people believed that he could do it. He did get $100,000 from Peter Thiel as a donation to his lab for this project, and he actually stretched it out for a long time. But George is focused on the science, not building businesses. And so he's not out there raising money for businesses. He's really looking at pushing the boundaries of synthetic biology and genetics forward. That's just what his focus is. His focus isn't going and raising money and building these companies. So I don't think anyone maybe saw the economic opportunities for this and wanted to go and, you know, take the mammoth by the tusk, if you will, and go do it. Until me, I guess.
Nora Ali: Talk to me about what the monetization aspect even is, because this is something that's mission-driven, it's presumably good for the planet, which we'll get into. Is there an exit plan? Or is this more of a legacy project where you're just trying to do good for the world?
Ben Lamm: I really do think that we have an opportunity with Colossal to create shareholder value and create incredible economic value. I think we have an opportunity to create a massive impact for the world. And I think we also have an opportunity to inspire, very similar to what SpaceX and Blue Origin and others have done for space exploration and engineering. I think we have an opportunity to do that for genetics and biology. Some little girl or little boy sees what we're working on. And, you know, working on de-extinction of the woolly mammoth and the thylacine are way more interesting than yeast. I don't want a bunch of people in the yeast world that are, like, coming at me with pitchforks and fire, but I think it's more interesting and more inspiring. So I think we can really bring these types of people, or hopefully inspire those next generations to come. And who knows what the halo effect can be?
But from a monetization perspective, we were treating this almost like the Apollo program, right? It's like, you know, there were engineering challenges to get to the moon, but there weren't science gates. We just had to go do the work. And that's similar to where we are with Colossal. We don't have science gates, we don't have to solve faster-than-light travel or change how biology works in order to do this. We have all the tools, you just need to do it. But like in the Apollo program, there's a halo effect of technologies that can be developed.
And so, part of our two-pronged monetization plan is taking technologies on the path to de-extinction, whether that's software, which happens on the computer, wetware, which happens in the lab, or hardware, in the case like artificial wombs or other robotics for labs, as we look to systematize some of the processes. And then apply that to human healthcare, which kind of goes back to my original thesis with George, and part of the reason why I reached out to him, was connecting computational biology, synthetic biology, and AI. So how can we leverage these tools and software to make biology systems more efficient, whether that's drug discovery or therapeutic design? So I do think that there's going to be these halo effects of technologies. And even just one technology out of this is billions of dollars of economic value. So if you have these big moonshot, North Star projects that you're working on, the technologies that you're going to innovate along the way to solve that big problem have billions of dollars of economic value as well.
Nora Ali: So if you have access to that capital, the applications of the technology that George and team are developing are far-reaching across a whole host of problems.
Ben Lamm: Oh, yeah. The same technologies that we're using to turn an Asian elephant into a woolly mammoth are applicable at curing disease states that require multiple gene edits. And so the more efficient we get at gene editing, the more applications there are for human healthcare, agriculture, and livestock, as well as de-extinction.
Nora Ali: So before we even get to the human healthcare application, I want to understand why it's important to you and the team to make the woolly mammoth come back. So conceptually, we know that biodiversity is important. It's important to try to prevent mass extinction. But for the layperson, why? What does that actually mean in practice?
Ben Lamm: We are going to lose up to 50% of all biodiversity between now and 2050 if we don't do something. And modern conservation is amazing, but it doesn't work at the same speed at which humans work at destroying the planet. So we have to do certain things. And so I don't think that Colossal is going to be this mythical creature company that essentially builds technologies that saves all life on earth. But I do think that we're going to develop technologies that can be massively helpful in a couple of key areas.
So the reason why we started with the mammoth was one, we have the technologies to do it. We have a close-enough phylogenetic relative being the Asian elephant, that they're close enough on the family tree to edit. But also, not only do we have the DNA that was frozen in the tundra from the mammoth, and we have its closest relative that we can edit being the Asian elephant, which is 99.6% a woolly mammoth already. There's actually huge applications to elephant conservation in what we're doing, and we need to develop those technologies. There's not enough people focused on that.
And then there's also an application called Arctic re-wilding, and there's a broader construct of re-wilding of putting animals back into the environment that we removed, or that nature removed, to restore degraded ecosystems. And so Arctic re-wilding is this concept that people have been working on for the last 30 years. And there's tons of peer-reviewed science around it and published papers, that if we introduce cold-tolerant megafauna back into the Arctic, we could help transform the Arctic back into an area of arctic grasslands, which is much more efficient at carbon sequestration than the current boreal forest that exists there now.
And so it's all about ecosystem restoration and geoengineering to combat climate change. So when you have a project as cool as the woolly mammoth that has a climate change aspect to it, and where the technologies can also help humans and help elephants from going extinct, it was the right project to start with. It's harder than the thylacine project, but it is the right project to start with.
Nora Ali: It definitely gets people's attention, and we'll get to the marketing and PR aspect around it in a moment. But to your point about the fact that we have to do something about extinction, otherwise it's just going to be total catastrophe. And scientists have reported that we are in the midst of a mass extinction, and it is primarily driven by humans. There's a New York Times article where they cited research published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It said, "If nothing changes, about 500 more terrestrial vertebrate species are likely to go extinct over the next two decades alone, bringing total losses equivalent to those that would have taken place naturally over 16,000 years." So humans are messing things up. It's not good.
Ben Lamm: We're weird and terrible and awful, but going back to that entrepreneur side, I think we also have the ability to create. That's one of the things that separates us from a lot of animals. We have the ability to create. So we have the opportunity to fix our wrongs. I just got back from Tasmania last week and what was interesting, because I wanted to meet with conservationists, meet with local government groups, but I also wanted to spend time with understanding where the thylacine was and be in the environment where it existed and where we're going to reintroduce it. And so one of the things that's interesting that came up was, I was fortunate enough to work with the incredible conservation group at Aussie Ark to reintroduce the 21st Tasmanian devil back into the mainland Australia and rerelease, because they've been working on creating a self-sustained population of Tasmanian devils that don't have the facial tumor disease that they do in Tasmania that's killing off the Tasmanian devils.
And so, they've got this established population that they're breeding and then reintroducing in the wild. And I was lucky enough to reintroduce Ned. I didn't name him, but Ned, the 21st Tasmanian devil to be reintroduced back in the mainland. But what was really interesting about it is, when I was talking to them about the thylacine project, one of the technologies that we're developing is this ex-utero pouch. So this has nothing to do with artificial wombs, this has nothing to do with genetics or software or whatnot. It's literally a pouch like all marsupials have, where they gestate their young. In Tasmanian devils, which are an endangered species, they have 20 to 30 joeys every litter, but they only have four nipples. And I don't know if you thought you'd be talking about Tasmanian devil nipples this morning in this podcast, but I find it fascinating. And so, literally, the vast majority of their litter die just through natural selection because there's only four nipples. So just that exo pouch that we're developing for the thylacine project, in the hands of Aussie Ark, they could five to six X every single litter. So every joey that doesn't attach, they could put it to an exo pouch and grow to term. That could five or six X each litter. And then if you do that on a species-level basis, one litter iteration, you could five X a species. And so, that's the kind of transformation in downstream effects that we're seeing around this that we're really, really excited about. And our hope is that the human healthcare stuff that we do does so well financially that we can subsidize all of the conservation work and give that to everyone for free.
Nora Ali: That is incredible. We're going to take a very quick break. More with Ben when we return. Okay, Ben, let's talk timelines. I was reading that Colossal expects the first mammoth calves to be born within four to six years. That seems pretty soon. Are you all on track for that? And where can we watch this happen?
Ben Lamm: Yes, we are on track. I don't think we're ahead of schedule because there are parts of the project that are just biology. So it takes 22 months for an elephant to gestate. That's two years. So there's just two years of, you know, cook it in the oven that we can't really do anything about. But so, what's interesting, though, is we believe in radical transparency. And so we try to share everything we do publicly. All our major milestones, we talk about publicly. This isn't something that we're doing in some secret lab, and then we're just going to unveil a mammoth or a thylacine or whatever. We do, on our website, post everything. On colossal.com, on social, we post everything. We are in the process of also collaborating with a couple of really big video partners. And so we're filming a lot of this stuff. We want everything open to the public. We want the world to be on this journey with us because de-extinction is for everybody. It's not just for America or Colossal. It's really for everybody. And conservation, everyone can be a conservationist. And so, that educational component's really key to us. So we are working on this docu-series component where we can actually share all of that with the world, so that the world can be involved and on the journey with us.
Nora Ali: And with radical transparency, I'm sure you're also opening the door up to critics as well. And there have been mixed responses to your de-extinction efforts with Colossal. Amongst the scientific community, people have raised moral and ethical concerns around the notion of bringing back extinct species. I've heard you say in the past that you welcome criticism, you welcome the conversation, but what is your argument to those who say it's just not moral, it's not ethical to bring back these species?
Playback: Our scientists have done things which nobody's ever done before. Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.
Ben Lamm: Just to clarify, I think I welcome informed criticism. I was on a thing a couple weeks ago and they were like, "This has nothing to do with elephant conservation, and Colossal isn't doing anything with elephant conservation." I was like, "Well, we partner with all the top elephant conservation groups and we have a part of our website that says 'elephant conservation.'" So, if you read that and then you aren't happy with it, give us feedback. So yeah, I'm all about informed criticism. If people come to us with feedback, we want that feedback. Some of our scientific advisors actually weren't the biggest supporters when we launched. Some of our most active scientific advisors were the ones that were negative when we launched the company. Then we reached out to them like, "Hey, why are you negative? Why do you not like this?" Or, "What can we do better?"
And I think it's important to engage that population. So it's really important, I think, to engage criticism. We're not going to do everything right. Some of the critics say, "Oh, but is Colossal playing God?" And I'm like, "Well, we play God every time we eradicate a species. We play God every time we take medicine and don't die of a disease and we prolong our lives. We play God every time we destroy the rainforest or pollute the ocean." And so I don't think it's playing God. I think that we have this natural responsibility to protect what we've been given, and life is precious. And so if we can have tools to make things better, why wouldn't we do that? And so that's kind of our goal. But we've also, as I mentioned, partnered with the top conservationists in the world, some of the top conservation groups in the world. We've got two bioethicists. One of our bioethicists, when I reached out to her originally, she was like, "You shouldn't do a mammoth. You should just do a GMO tomato." That's the feedback I wanted. I wanted to understand why. And if you are going to do this, why would you not do this? I think we've been very, very thoughtful and on the right approach. And I think we've been very, very inclusive around the people that we brought to the table. And I think that when you're doing anything, especially something as bold and as big as de-extinction, you have to be inclusive and you've got to reach out to critics. I would just ask that they're informed. That's the only thing. If you have feedback for us, we want to hear it.
Nora Ali: Just do the research first.
Ben Lamm: Yeah. Please read what we've said. We're pretty transparent.
Nora Ali: Yeah, for sure. All right, Ben. It is time to take a very quick break. More when we return. So I know a large part of what you're trying to do is just educating the general population about de-extinction, the importance of biodiversity and conservation, all of that. And you have a pretty robust marketing strategy. I know you've partnered with influencers, you have celebrity investors, there's a hashtag #colossalpartner. What is the intent behind this strategy? Is it just to get people aware of what you're doing and aware of maybe the issues that we've caused as humans that we are now due to fix?
Ben Lamm: So about a third of our investors are impact investors. They just care about the positive impact. A third of our investors are traditional investors, and a third of them are consumer investors. That's people like Thomas Tull, who's the founder of Legendary Pictures. It's folks like Chris Hemsworth, Paris Hilton and others, and Animal Capital. Those are people that really have a beat on the cultural zeitgeist that the world's in right now. I think it's really important to reach them. We're always competing for eyeballs. So, for example, all these incredible influencers out there, we constantly engage. We're constantly reaching out to not just science influencers, but influencers in the world of pop culture. It's amazing what one tweet from Paris Hilton can do, versus...I don't want to break hearts here, but a lot of the younger generation don't go to Cell and Nature science journals and read scientific papers. That viewpoint is a scientific elitist viewpoint that's just wrong. Scientists read Nature and they criticize it, but some little boy or little girl, they're on TikTok. So how do you get them engaged?
I believe that if you are trying to educate people, you shouldn't ask people to come to you, you should go to them. And so we are huge believers in reaching kids. So instead of them watching some video about Kanye West flipping out on the next thing, they could watch something on de-extinction and understand about, you know...We've given a bigger voice to elephant herpes than anyone ever before. Not that everyone should know about elephant herpes, but 25% of elephants die of a disease that we can fix. We can eradicate this disease if there's enough focus and funding on it, and that will save 25% of elephants a year. 25%. That's insane. And we can do that. But the people that know about that are people in zoos, people that work with elephant conservation. My grandmother didn't know that, but she knows what's the latest Kim Kardashian thing, or when Elon Musk is tweeting. So she knows those things because that's a part of pop culture. And so if we can reach the audiences where they are, that's really critical to our strategy.
Nora Ali: Yeah. If a former Bachelor contestant shows up on your For You page talking about de-extinction, then you're going to see it.
Kendall Jenner: A company called Colossal just announced that they're going to rebirth the woolly mammoth. I repeat, this is not a drill. The woolly mammoth will be rebirthed in the near future, and here's all the information you need to know about...
Ben Lamm: Yeah, Kendall's great. And a lot of our influencers have come to us saying, "Hey, can we give you discounted rates or can we work with you on content?" Nick Uhas is another one.
Nick Uhas: And the thylacine was officially considered extinct in 1986 by the Tasmanian government. So it seems that all hope has been lost for the Tasmanian tiger. Until now. This incredibly innovative company called Colossal is working with famed scientist Dr. Andrew Park and the University of Melbourne's Tiger Lab to literally de-extinct the thylacine.
Ben Lamm: Nick Uhas begged us to be a scientific advisor. And Nick's amazing. I would've made him a scientific advisor anyway. Same thing with Kendall. And so we've been very fortunate that not just scientists have reached out to us, but also that the pop culture crowd has leaned in. I think that's how you reach the youth. Makes me sound old, but...
Nora Ali: No, I say that: "the youths of today." But before I let you go, Ben, a final segment. It's called Shoot Your Shot. So we want to know, what is your moonshot idea? I know you have a lot of them, but your wildest ambition, your biggest dream. Everybody has one, and I know you have many, so shoot your shot.
Ben Lamm: So, de-extinction of extinct species is not a big enough moonshot?
Nora Ali: It could be something very personal for you and your family. You want to go to space? Just anything that's not tied to your work right now, Ben. What's your moonshot?
Ben Lamm: Yeah. Okay. Okay, great. Great. So I would love to see humanity become an interplanetary species. Another thing that I would like to be is, I would like to go not only to space, but to the deepest depths of the ocean because there's so much of the ocean that isn't explored. And there's also incredible real estate there. So how can we look at off-world living and also underwater living? I think those are both pretty interesting categories to think about.
Nora Ali: Amazing. Exploration is in your blood. All right, Ben, thank you so much for joining us on Business Casual. We appreciate the time.
Ben Lamm: Yeah, thank you.
Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli. And I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments and thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, just shoot me a DM and I will do my very best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing email@example.com, or give us a call. That number is 862-295-1135. And if you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please, please, please leave us a rating and a review. It really, really helps us. And guess what? We are on YouTube. So if you've ever wondered what I look like or what our guests look like, full episodes are available at youtube.com/morningbrewdaily.
Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Olivia Meade. Additional production, sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus. Kate Brandt is our fact checker, and AB Silver is our senior booking producer. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.