The NFX Podcast

The Google of Biology: Meet the Company that is Reading & Writing the Code of Life

Episode Summary

Biology is the new frontier. At NFX, we’ve been investing in this space. And in this episode of the NFX podcast, we talk to Trevor Martin, the CEO and Co-Founder of Mammoth Biosciences, an NFX company, that is now the largest repository of CRISPR IP in the world. They are developing the Google of biology where they will help anyone find what they are looking for in the genome. They are also working on a rapid COVID-19 test that uses CRISPR. Today we will talk about the cutting edge of what’s happening and why the future will be defined by biology. Read more at -

Episode Transcription

James Currier (00:00):

In 1958, an engineer at Texas Instruments created the first microchip. That invention became the basis for modern technology and the explosion of new businesses. 2012, scientists discovered the CRISPR-Cas9 proteins could be used for detecting and editing genomes. It is considered one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology. With the invention of CRISPR, we suddenly have the tools to find and manipulate biology in a simple-to-use inexpensive way. The next four years, like the last 60 years of progress with the microchip, we'll see rapid biological innovation.

James Currier (00:35):

It will touch everything, food, diagnostics, ocean sciences, therapeutics, energy, pets, how we landscape our yards, everything. Biology is the new frontier. At NFX, we've been investing in this space. And in this episode of the NFX Podcast, we talk to Trevor Martin, the CEO and co-founder of Mammoth Biosciences, and NFX company is now the largest repository of CRISPR IP in the world. They are developing the Google of biology, where they will help anyone find what they are looking for in the genome. They are also working on a rapid COVID-19 test that uses CRISPR technology. Today, we will talk about the cutting edge of what's happening and why the future will be defined by biology. Let's jump in.

James Currier (01:17):

This is James Currier with NFX. And today, we've got Trevor Martin, the CEO of Mammoth Biosciences. Trevor, great to have you on here, man.

Trevor Martin (01:25):

Yeah, thanks for having me on.

James Currier (01:26):

You bet. You're the co founder and the CEO of Mammoth Biosciences, and you're co-founders are Janice Chen and Lucas Harrington and Jennifer Doudna, the inventor of CRISPR along with her staff there over at her lab at Berkeley. And your startup uses CRISPR gene editing technology for therapeutics and for diagnostics. Since February, you've been working to create a rapid COVID test, and we'll get into that. This COVID test is currently pending FDA emergency approval. And Mammoth recently announced a partnership on the test with the pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline This is a company that wants it works once it can be manufactured at scale, these are the guys to be able to do it.

James Currier (02:05):

And look, I met you through Omri Drory of Tech Bio back in 2007, and I got a chance to fund your pre-seed round in June of 2017 weeks before you graduated with your PhD in genetics at Stanford. Then, we led the seed round that fall, and then, we at NFX have participated in all the rounds subsequently. And at the time in June, when we funded you, it was your first job out of academia. And prior to Stanford, you went to Princeton, my alma matter, which is great to see. And you grew up in rural Georgia, and you're now 31. I got it all right?

Trevor Martin (02:34):

Yeah. [inaudible 00:02:34] for sure.

James Currier (02:35):

Thanks for taking a break from what you've been working on to talk with us. We know you're busy, and I think it's not an overstatement to say what you guys are working on is actually very important. So, thank you for the time. Let's give some basic context about the basics of Mammoth. What is CRISPR in civil terms and how does it work?

Trevor Martin (02:55):

If you've heard about CRISPR, they probably heard about it in the context of, like you mentioned, gene editing. There's been a lot of kind of newspaper articles around engineering, the human race, editing humanity, and these aren't incorrect kind of descriptions of CRISPR. It is an amazing gene editing tool, and that's where it's really come onto the stage originally, but I think at Mammoth, what we see is that that explanation is a bit incomplete.

Trevor Martin (03:16):

We see really CRISPR more broadly as a way of having a search engine for biology in a way of programmatically interacting with what messy, previously thought to be in many ways in tractable biology and the same way that we can program a computer. And once you start thinking about CRISPR in that way, it really opens up all the possibilities. For example, using it as a diagnostic tool, having it go into some sort of very complex sample and if and only if it successfully finds a certain target that you've programmed into it, then it will read that out.

James Currier (03:46):

There's Cas9. There's Cas12, 13, 14. You guys are really focused on 12, 13 and 14, and these are basically types of proteins that, allow you to go in and sense what's in there to read out what DNA or RNA is existing in the cells and then report back or go in and snip and cut it and make edits to it. Is that right?

Trevor Martin (04:07):

Yeah. More generally, we're really focused on the next generation of CRISPR. So whether that's for teens in the 12, 13, or this brand new 14 family that we've developed and characterized or if that's something we haven't even discovered yet or that doesn't fit into any given classification system, and the kind of most famous CRISPR protein out there is Cas9. And that's the one that most people have heard of. I think what's interesting is that even from the genesis of Mammoth, we couldn’t have used Cas9 to build the types of diagnostic systems that we're building because it doesn't have this special properties that we use.

Trevor Martin (04:40):

But part of our thesis is that new proteins in this kind of CRISPR universe enable new functionalities. It's not just having something new for the sake of it being new. It's really something new allows you to unlock something that wasn't possible before, like this kind of CRISPR-based diagnostic system.

James Currier (04:56):

In a way, it's almost like the discovery of a microchip where you have completely new capabilities that we didn't have before. How is it different from the biology that came before? I mean maybe try to play out some of that analogy with what life was like before we had a microchip and then afterwards? And then what came, of course, as a result of having a microchip, the internet and cell phones and everything?

Trevor Martin (05:16):

Yeah. It's interesting because actually even before Cas9, there's been ways of interacting with DNA and RNA to cut it and edit it. For example, there's things like TALENs but one of the major breakthroughs, even with Cas9, which is an amazing tool itself, was the kind of programmability of that. Before, it's something that took a lot of time, a lot of effort, maybe an entire PhD to edit a single locus and a genome, for example. And when Cas9 came along, one of the huge transformations there, and you often hear about this in terms of talking about the democratization of access to these types of tools, is they don't need to have a lab and a core facility and all these different people that are super well trained to create a talent system for this one locus that it's going to be a whole ordeal to get working.

Trevor Martin (06:04):

Instead, instead you can really quickly and rapidly and iteratively most important go after editing even many places in the genome through things like genetic screens because of a key part of this kind of CRISPR technology, which was present in the first Cas9 version as well, which is the programmability. And that programmability comes from the fact that the CRISPR-Cas system is a protein fundamentally, so it's something you could hold in your hand, or you could hold a million of them in your hands. And the way you program it is by giving a thing called a guide RNA. And we're very, very good at synthesizing and creating these guide RNAs. Guide RNAs, you can think of them literally as letters like ATCG. And you can think of the CRISPR-14 as kind of a Google where you type in a search string and that search string is your guide RNA. And then it will go find that.

Trevor Martin (06:47):

And once it finds it, you can do many things so that you can cut it, so you edit, you can report out and found it. You can chew through it, destroy it. You can turn something on, turn something off, et cetera. That was the first big breakthrough. What we're excited about at Mammoth is then taking that to the next level. Even their Cas9 is an amazing tool. There's still many limitations.

Trevor Martin (07:04):

One example of limitation would be that you can't actually send it anywhere. There's actually limitations on where it could go. It can only go to these zip codes, but not these others zip codes. With some of the proteins we've discovered, for example, from the Cas14 family that we've now developed into these really awesome tools, you can actually target anywhere in the genome for diagnostics, which is a huge sea change in what's possible especially if you're looking after specific genomic targets. You can't just rely on happening to have the right sequence in the area that allows you to target it.

James Currier (07:34):

To give us all a sense of how quickly this is happening, Cas9 was invented when?

Trevor Martin (07:39):

Like anything in science, obviously, it's a long journey, but really came on the scene in 2012.

James Currier (07:44):

2012. Then Cas13 was 2017, Cas14 was 2018. I mean, it's all happening right now, right? It's interesting that these technological innovations have taken place in biology that now give us these new tools, and they simply didn't exist three, four years ago.

Trevor Martin (08:03):

Yeah. And I think it's definitely accelerating as well. The whole field of synthetic biology, generally, and this idea of interacting with biology and this kind of programmatic way is definitely, I think, capturing the imagination and also taking off. And there's this kind of common phrase, obviously, in the valley around software eating the world. And I think definitely the message for the next decade, in my opinion, is that that was just the appetizer and that biology is really the main course here in terms of what can fundamentally transform the way we interact with the world. And, of course, there'll be many awesome products built in that space.

James Currier (08:33):

Right, and it's probably not just in this next decade, but it's probably the next 30, 40 years.

Trevor Martin (08:37):

Well, yeah, but beginning of the next 10 years and we'll see where it goes from there.

James Currier (08:39):

Yeah, because these are really the first tools of the microchip, if you will, for what's to come next. And the programmability and the iteration that you can do with this CRISPR tool is what's new, and it's also what we were able to do in software starting in the 70s and 80s once the substrate of the computational system was strong enough. Then, we could start to iterate, and that's really where we saw a lot of explosive opportunity. And that's what we're getting with CRISPR. It's amazing.

James Currier (09:05):

You're doing both therapeutics and diagnostics using CRISPR at Mammoth. And then what's the business model? Give people a sense. How do you guys make money?

Trevor Martin (09:13):

Yeah. I think, fundamentally, we view CRISPR as this platform for searching through biology, finding something, and then doing what you want to do with that kind of sequence once you find it. So once you start thinking about CRISPR in that framework, it becomes very natural actually to think about, "Okay, we find something, and we want to report out that we found it. We find something we want to edit it in many different ways," or even things we can do beyond that, turning something on, turning it off, et cetera.

Trevor Martin (09:39):

And in terms of the business model there, I think it's going to, of course, be different depending on the exact application you're going after. So, diagnostics, for example, has a very different business models generally than therapeutics and editing. But, fundamentally at Mammoth, one of the ways that we can scale the company is especially early on working with really trusted partners very deeply and in close collaboration to really enter these markets in the strongest way possible.

James Currier (10:06):

So, partners like-

Trevor Martin (10:07):

Yes. I think the recent news around GSK is a good example of this where we're a young startup with a really exciting technology and a ton of expertise around how to actually build that into a product that can help millions or actually in this case, truly billions of people. And we have a ton of expertise around how to really create that product and make it the best thing it can be. And then, we can partner with a company like GSK, for example, that has incredible expertise in kind of global distribution, manufacturing things at scale, bringing things through many different regulatory processes. And it's one of these things where it's the best of both worlds in terms of them making a huge bet on innovation and the space and us making a huge bet on a partner that believes in innovation and bringing exciting new technologies to the market. That's an example where I think you can have the best of both worlds in some sense.

James Currier (10:56):

So, GSK is almost like building an app on top of a platform. If you said you had Microsoft OS and you built Word Perfect on it, you built Excel on it, you built various apps on top of the Microsoft OS, you could be saying the same thing for Mammoth Biosciences where GSK is going to help you build the COVID diagnostic, or you're going to build it, and then they're going to distribute it, but that would be an app that would then live on top of the platform of Mammoth Biosciences. And then, those people make money and then they pay you a portion of the money that they make because they pay you rights to use the platform, get the data, get the thing developed.

Trevor Martin (11:27):

Right. Working with partners is a good way to scale across different verticals and then, of course, long-term, as you further develop these technologies and gain expertise and building them to market, you can also imagine going directly in certain markets yourself. It's an interesting strategy where you can really grow very quickly and very effectively while still maintaining a long-term value where as you go after different applications, you can, of course, go directly if that's the choice that you want to make.

James Currier (11:53):

Got it. You guys have also announced the therapeutics partnership as well. Now, there's a company that wants to build basically an app, if you will, or a particular instance of using CRISPR and on the therapeutic side and the editing side.

Trevor Martin (12:04):

Yeah. So on the editing side, we've also announced a partnership with Horizon Discovery where they're using it for some exciting applications there on the editing side.

James Currier (12:14):

Where's the company based, Trevor, just so everybody knows and how many people are in there?

Trevor Martin (12:18):

We're in South San Francisco, which, I think at the slogan of area, is the birthplace of biotech. [crosstalk 00:12:24] It's a really exciting place to be in general because there's definitely a lot of large companies. Genentech is one of the main companies there, of course, but then tons and tons of startups as well. It's a very interesting ecosystem. Actually, we're on the campus of one of our investors as well, which is Verily, which is one of the life science arms of Alphabet or Google, I guess, as most people know it still. That's also really interesting kind of micro ecosystem where we're also on the campus of a much larger company, but many very fast growing startups are there as well, and it's really just great environment to be in.

James Currier (12:58):

Got it. I've heard recently that hundreds through over 300 biotech startups, well, synthetic biology, computational biology companies have moved to the Bay Area over the last 24 months from all over the world to be in the growing ecosystem here in the Bay Area, and I think that South San Francisco is really the epicenter of it. You're running this company. January 2020 comes. What happened? We use the word pivot a lot when we talk about changes companies need to make to their business model and when responding to, say, a global pandemic.

James Currier (13:31):

But you don't use that word when you describe what happened to you earlier this year, when you went from looking at infectious diseases to going after this new virus. Take us back to that moment when you realized that COVID was something that required all of your attention. And what did you do?

Trevor Martin (13:45):

That's a great question. And I think from the very beginning of the company, we've been interested in leveraging CRISPR-based diagnostics for infectious disease. And so, that's why it was a very natural kind of process for us to really start developing a test for COVID-19 very quickly. Very early on, one of the things that was incredibly helpful is the network that we've built up around the company.

Trevor Martin (14:06):

So, for example, one of our scientific advisory board members, Dr. Charles Chu, a leading professor over at UCSF here in San Francisco, he is a worldwide expert in infectious disease. And so, we had a conversation with him very early on. Definitely, he was very supportive of us seeing about what CRISPR diagnostics could do in this type of situation because definitely one of the advantages we see of the technology is that a test can be spun up very rapidly for example.

James Currier (14:30):

What do you mean very rapidly?

Trevor Martin (14:31):

Instead of taking many months to develop a new test, really taking weeks to do so. I think we really proved that out earlier this year, when within weeks of making this decision to create a CRISPR-based diagnostic for COVID-19, we're able to post on our website a white paper actually describing how anyone could run this test.

James Currier (14:51):

So, two weeks to get something going rather than three to four months.\

Trevor Martin (14:55):

Right. And I think especially for a new technology like CRISPR Diagnostics where you're not capitalizing on decades and decades of creating tests before, I think that's an especially powerful statement to be able to put out this type of white paper showing how a CRISPR diagnostic could function. Then, I think that was further validated when, shortly thereafter, we were able to publish this paper in Nature Biotechnology, where we actually had the largest and most rigorous set of real patient samples run on a COVID-19 CRISPR diagnostic, almost a hundred samples and showed that it had really great sensitivity and specificity.

James Currier (15:30):

A hundred samples is considered a pretty good panel for something like this in such a short amount of time, and that was pretty exciting at the time. This was back in, what, January, February, right?

Trevor Martin (15:37):

I don't know the exact date on the paper, but in general, I think we had probably around 84 samples, which is, yeah, just far above what's required for regulatory commissions.

James Currier (15:49):

And you were able to get to those samples through UCSF.

Trevor Martin (15:52):

Through our collaboration with Dr. Charles Chu, for example. And that's where having a really strong network around the company of amazing individuals who are experts in their fields is super critical, I think, for moving quickly and developing these types of tests as well.

James Currier (16:06):

Once you had done that, when did the team decide, "Okay, let's go all in on COVID-19 and solve this."

Trevor Martin (16:11):

Yeah. I think from the very beginnings of when we're working on the white paper, it was definitely something where we knew that CRISPR Diagnostics had the potential to actually make an impact here if we work on it hard enough.

James Currier (16:24):

You were looking at the virality of it. You were looking at this is where the death rates that were coming out of Wuhan and you said, "Oh, this is a serious thing. This is worth our attention," because we didn't have lockdowns in the US until like March 16th or something.

Trevor Martin (16:35):

Yeah. I mean I think it definitely comes down to a global perspective around definitely you've seen things like H1N1 and even in other parts of the world, things like Zika and Ebola. And I think one of the promises of CRISPR-based Diagnostics is that can create tests that are actually both effective for things that we can use it for in a non-pandemic situation and the developed world, but also can be something that's leveraged in the developing world and in low resource settings where you can't have a huge amount of equipment and people that are trained to run that specific type of equipment.

Trevor Martin (17:07):

That's where I think also some of the emphasis comes from in terms of moving very quickly. Obviously, we don't have a crystal ball in terms of saying, "Okay, this is how much of a pandemics is going to be or not," but I think even at that early stage, knowing that CRISPR diagnostics can have an impact.

James Currier (17:21):

And bring us up to speed, where are we with the COVID test? Tell us about the test. How fast will it work? Where can you do it? And why is it a significant breakthrough versus what we already have?

Trevor Martin (17:30):

Yeah. The way I view diagnostics in general today is a bit of a tale of two cities. On the one hand, you have molecular testing and that's things that people may have heard before like PCR sequencing. These are technologies that can have incredibly high accuracy, but they require long turnaround times. Maybe, you need to mail in a sample because there can be weeks before you get a result. Requires expensive equipment, $100,000 machine, $10,000 machine, requires trained personnel people in lab coats, kind of pipe cutting stuff back and forth. That's the disadvantage, but the advantage is it's really the gold standard type technologies.

Trevor Martin (18:03):

On the other end of the spectrum, you have a kind of rapid tests. You may have heard of antigen antibody tests. These are things that can be in the format of like our pregnancy tests, but typically suffer from much lower sensitivity and specificity and often are not molecular. They're not testing for the DNA and RNA. They're looking at proteins and that's going to give you a different part of the disease progression, for example, where typically these aren't going to be very effective in the early asymptomatic stages.

Trevor Martin (18:29):

We're looking at the nucleic acids [inaudible 00:18:31]. The advantage here is very scalable, very accessible, very easy to use where the disadvantages often not molecular are detecting nucleic acids and then often lower sensitivity and specificity. I think the promise of CRISPR-based diagnostics is what if you could actually unify these two fields, and what if you could actually have molecular style results in its rapid style format? I think that's fundamentally what's exciting. What if within 20 minutes, you could get a result that has the same accuracy as what you would get going into a lab by taking a nasal swab or spit or similar sample and using something in the format of a pregnancy test to get that result"

Trevor Martin (19:06):

That would be transformative and that's been a bit of the ultimate aim of diagnostics as a field generally for a while. That's where it's really exciting that technology breakthroughs like CRISPR can really enable us to get towards that type of product.

James Currier (19:18):

With this COVID test, you've proven that this approach works in the lab, but now, you need to go through more development. When do you think that development will get to the point where this could be mass produced approximately?

Trevor Martin (19:31):

Yeah. What's exciting is that we've shown that the fundamental chemistry has amazing sensitivity and specificity, and it's very simple, and it's something that could be put into this really simple format. Now, of course, the next step is okay doing that. And if we've been working on that for a while but of course, there's still work to be done to achieve that goal. And our goal right now is that by the end of the year, we would have a EUA submitted to the FDA around that.

James Currier (19:56):

And an EUA is for those listening?

Trevor Martin (19:59):

It's emergency use authorization, so that would be starting the regulatory process.

James Currier (20:04):

Great. So the regulatory process with the FDA might take months and months typically, but because it's an EUA and emergency one, they would get back to you in several days or a week or two.

Trevor Martin (20:13):

It's a constantly changing guidance, but definitely faster than the normal process would be the goal.

James Currier (20:19):

And so the FDA is aware of what you guys are doing. They're eager for you to give them what you're trying to give them, and they're ready. The ready position to get what you've got and approve it if it really, really works and then let us spread this around because theoretically, you could have this at home, and then you could just take a picture of it with your cell phone and send it to the Center for Disease Control or your state disease control, and you could actually watch a pandemic sort of move across the landscape almost in real with this type of a tool. Is that part of the vision?

Trevor Martin (20:50):

Yeah. Definitely, you'd want it connect it to next steps, for example. So that can either be through a picture or maybe even a more easily and scalable. You can just be Bluetooth that connects the result to your phone, so you don't have too much interpretation going on and then more generally in terms of next steps, that could be telemedicine telehealth. It could be anonymously sending results to an organization like the CDC could be many different kind of parameters there where the important thing is that it's actionable and obviously in a pandemic, your COVID-19 status is very actionable, and I think many people would like to know, but also making sure that it's supported is a key feature of connecting that to something [inaudible 00:21:30] so that you know, okay, let's say I have a positive result, what are the steps that I should actually take next and you're not left wondering and worrying.

James Currier (21:37):

The next COVID, if you will, COVID-22 or COVID-25, with Mammoth around, it could all change where as soon as it emerges in Wuhan, Mammoth grabs a bunch of samples, the few weeks figures out what the signature is and then within just a few months has tens of millions, hundreds of millions of home diagnostics available all tied into the internet, so that we're ready if it actually jumps the ocean and starts coming to the US or Europe or wherever or vice versa. That's a world we could be living in, in the next two years.

Trevor Martin (22:08):

I think, yeah. Actually, you could do even better than that because of the way the system works and because it's programmed by this Guide RNA. You could even stockpile millions of tests but without the Guide RNA so that within even just weeks, you could have millions of tests ready to be deployed without having to go through the full process of creating the entire pregnancy tests like device. Instead, you can just add a single region potentially, and that's even more powerful.

James Currier (22:33):

Amazing. That sounds fantastic. Boy, could we have used that this last year, that would have changed the whole thing.

Trevor Martin (22:40):

Yeah. The pandemic has really exposed, I think, a surprising gap in our diagnostic capabilities in some ways. I mean, I definitely personally think it's crazy that in 2020, we don't have this ability to very rapidly given accurate molecular tests at scale. And that's definitely a big part of what we're solving at Mammoth.

James Currier (22:56):

Look, Trevor. Let's talk about you for a little bit and start to get at some of the things that you've learned being a CEO. you're 31 years old. You're the CEO of this very important company. You guys have a library of CRISPR IP, that's the largest of the world. Just prior to this, you were a PhD student at Stanford. You hadn't actually worked in industry before this. You're learning on the fly. I'd love to get at what it's like to transition from scientist to founder, to entrepreneur.

James Currier (23:22):

If we could, let's go back to the early days when we met. You're a PhD student your final year. You're presenting your business idea to startup showcase to Stanford, right? And you met Omri Drory, who is a former CEO of Genome Compiler, and then became the head of biz dev and M&A at Twist. After Twist acquired Genome Compiler. And then Omri introduces you to me. And you and I get to meet in my garage here in Palo Alto. We talked about the bio platform idea. We changed the name of the company to Mammoth, which is more spellable than the original one.

James Currier (23:53):

You brought on three new co-founders including Jennifer Doudna, who co-discovered CRISPR. And that was a great period of change for you. What were some of the things that it was to transition from this world of biologists, computational biology and academia into being a founder and then raising capital?

Trevor Martin (24:11):

Yeah, so I think one area that actually a PhD in that type of training is actually very helpful. Interestingly enough, for a startup is dealing with uncertainty. I think in a PhD, the whole point is that you're trying to go after things that no one's ever done before, and there's no textbook that you can follow to get there or else you shouldn't probably be doing it. I think that's actually one area where founders coming out of that environment and myself definitely can leverage that to our advantage in terms of like being more comfortable with like, okay, we don't know what the answer is.

Trevor Martin (24:43):

We don't know where this is headed. It could go many different directions. And, frankly, being comfortable with failure the first three years of your PhD, often people say that's just where you learn how not to do things, for example. In a startup as well, definitely, a huge part of it, in my opinion, is being comfortable with failing or coming close to failing and persevering through that. I think that's somewhere we're actually, maybe it's under-appreciated how much graduate school PhD training can actually be an advantage.

James Currier (25:09):

Yeah. I think that's great news for all of us because we need people like you coming out and building stuff, making stuff. We need folks who have this deep domain knowledge in computational biology to actually use that in a way that sort of expands and touches hundreds of millions or billions of people, and you are doing just that. So I'm glad that you got that training. Are there ways of thinking that clash between thinking like a biologist and thinking like a founder? Did you have to reinvent any frameworks that you think through?

Trevor Martin (25:44):

Yeah. No. I think definitely obviously there's a lot of differences. And I think a key one for me personally was as the company... I mean, well, even very quickly early on in hiring our first employees, especially as the company has grown something graduate school doesn't prepare you for as much, and I think even for people staying on an academic path probably should prepare you better is managing people actually because, definitely, there's a big impetus towards collaborating and things like that in academia although I don't think there's enough of that either. But there's definitely not any formal training or really extensive mentorship processes around how do you manage a team? How do you motivate people? How do you deal with someone that's feeling less motivated?

Trevor Martin (26:27):

I think that's an area where, especially as the startup grows, that becomes 90-plus% of your job, and that's incredibly important. I think one of the things I'm excited about personally is just getting the smartest people on earth and people that are way smarter than me to work on really interesting problems with me that I think are important. That part came very easily to me in terms of, that's just what's exciting and what I like to do. But I think a more formal work around how do you make sure to manage effectively and things like that are something where at graduate school maybe it doesn't prepare you as well as it could.

James Currier (26:59):

That's a great point. I've noticed that even at your young age, you've managed to hire some of the best people in the world for building this type of a company and people who are older than you wiser than you have more experience than you. How do you relate to them? How do you see yourself in your role in the company to "manage them" or work with them, if you will?

Trevor Martin (27:21):

My number one goal in general is to get people that are better than me to help us on this journey, because I think that's the only way you'll accomplish incredibly ambitious goals.

James Currier (27:31):

And then just be the glue. Be the glue that ties them together and inspire them with the vision.

Trevor Martin (27:35):

Right. And the key there is really if you're going to hire a really awesome people, then there's no point in trying to just force what you want them to do because, otherwise, you could hire people that aren't really awesome and smart, and just tell them what to do. So, I think that makes it very easy for me to really always be thinking about how to empower people and how to make sure that people are putting in the right situation where they can leverage their superpowers rather than putting people in a situation and saying, "Okay. This is what you should be doing."

Trevor Martin (28:03):

And I think in many ways, it's interesting because it sounds like an easier thing to do, like, okay, you just find really smart people and then you put them in the right situation, but I think that's actually, in many cases, way harder than just hiring someone and then trying to force what you think they should be doing on them.

James Currier (28:17):

Right. What do you do around culture? This is, for what, 35 people. It could end up being hundreds and hundreds. We have Genentech as an example. This thing could be infinitely sized. What are you doing right now in terms of building culture?

Trevor Martin (28:30):

Yeah. In this type of model, culture is extremely important. So from very early in the company, we've written down cultural values, for example, but writing them down when [inaudible 00:28:41] is definitely an important for stuff that I think many companies don't do. And I think that's definitely something you should do, but it's only step one of probably infinite steps, but at least many steps. And I think the more important part that we're always self-evaluating on is do we actually bring these kind of cultural values that we've outlined and claim that are important to us into decision making?

Trevor Martin (29:01):

When we're making tough decisions, do we actually reference them in those decisions and do they actually influence what we ended up doing? That's how we view cultural more broadly is, okay, you have values that you've thought about and that the company is aligned on these being important. But then on self-reflection when especially when times are tough, let's say, or when you're making a tough decision, is that a framework that you bring in for making the decision? And if not, maybe you need to adjust your values or maybe you need to start doing that.

James Currier (29:29):

You guys have coaches, right?

Trevor Martin (29:31):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Currier (29:33):

So each of the management and the founders have coaches to help them be even better at their job, which I think is great as an opening and a communication improvement. I know several of you have done the LIT Program, the Leaders in Technology. That's a Carole Robin and Joe Greenstein program for up and coming leaders that focuses on culture and communication and your own personal growth with it.

James Currier (29:57):

One of the things we've said at NFX is there's no corporate growth without personal growth. There's no corporate victory without personal victory. These are very far looking things. You guys are building a real foundation. I think you've said that to me in the past that the idea at this early stage, even with all the chaos of the fundraising and the partnership with GSK and the moving of the offices and the hiring people, as quickly as you can and the press coming out all the time about Mammoth, I mean, there's hundreds and hundreds of press mentions of Mammoth just in the last year alone.

James Currier (30:30):

With all that, you're still spending the time on the culture and the foundation and the communication, because you can see pretty far into the future about how sizable this gets. You said to me in the past that culture is really the secret weapon. Culture is how you really scale these things, so they don't have to actually direct every piece of it. I think a lot of founders don't spend that time, and I think you guys are such an exemplar in doing that. So, I wanted to commend you on that.

Trevor Martin (30:54):

Yeah, definitely, especially in the Bay Area, the expensive many of these programs, but I think definitely long term, it's worth it. Even if you're not using the... You don’t have to use the super fancy expensive programs. I think part of it as well comes down to especially early on when you're looking at investors, hopefully, being able to choose investors that you think could also help in these types of situations and have similarly aligned kind of cultural focus can be a way of helping lay that foundation as well.

James Currier (31:24):

Yeah. We've often seen the difference on board members that were operators before they became board members when they would run their own companies because there's a lot more EQ required to often get into managed folks. And I think that finding people who support you in digging that deep foundation is critical for sure. What other advice do you have for early stage founders in biotech? You've come pretty far with what you've done in just the last three years.

Trevor Martin (31:47):

I think it's becoming more and more popular actually for graduate students and postdocs to [inaudible 00:31:52] companies, which I think is super awesome. And I don't think it takes away from academia at all in terms of like... I think these are just different ways of trying to make a really awesome impact on the world, and I think that's one of the advantages of biotech as well in the kind of corporate world is that this just really clear line towards a public good and aligning that with a profit incentive and I think that's where some of the most iconic companies are built is when those aren't in conflict. I think that's really exciting for the field in general is that we'll probably have a lot of really awesome advances for human health as a result of this.

Trevor Martin (32:23):

In terms of kind of advice and things to watch out for, I think one thing definitely that's a big difference that you have to be comfortable with, well, depending on which track you want to take exactly, but let's say you want to be CEO of a biotech startup is you have to be comfortable with stepping away from the details of the science. And I think that can be a key stumbling block as a company grows, is that if you aren't super okay with that, which is fine, there's no value judgment there at all. In fact, some people might say being closer to the [inaudible 00:32:51] is higher value.

Trevor Martin (32:52):

But it just means you need to be careful about what role are you actually playing in the company. If you want to be CEO or chief operating officer some other role that's not chief scientist, but even for chief scientists, let's say, really being able to understand that, hey, I'm not going to be writing code necessarily as much as I was before and I'm not going to be micromanaging every single scientist on the team, I'm going to hire a really awesome people that can do amazing science better than me, equal to me, hopefully not worse than you would do. That would put you in a bit of a spiral towards hiring.

Trevor Martin (33:22):

But really having that mentality of empowering others because in graduate school and even in a postdoc as well, often, it can be an individual contributor-type role. Even if you are managing some RAs, really, you're doing a ton of the work. And that's super rewarding, and you need to be comfortable or at least understand that as part of the growth of the company, that won't be your role going forward. I think that's a really important mental thing to at least consider at the beginning. Is that something you love and is that what you want to do for the rest of your life, is stay really close to the science and really be in the weeds of it every single-day coding, or do you want to manage a team of really awesome scientists that are really in the weeds? Of course, staying close to it and understanding it, but not being in that exact same individual contributor role. I think that's a really key.

James Currier (34:06):

Yeah, the CEO role. Yeah. All the hard decisions come to you. If they were easy, someone else would've made them. You're spending your day making the hard decisions. You're spending your day recruiting and managing, spending your day fundraising talking to press.

Trevor Martin (34:18):

And I think that actually goes into the second key area that I've found has been important, which is understanding regardless of what your role is but definitely, of course, for the CEO, especially, one of the things that uniquely you can do and one of the things that other people can do better than you or can do, or you shouldn't be doing. And I think they're constantly asking yourself that question can really make yourself way more high leverage because I think one mistake that can be made early on, and I'll fully admit this mistake myself is that filling up your calendar? It can feel like a productivity measure.

Trevor Martin (34:54):

But actually, in many ways, it might be the worst measure. It's actually opposite. It's inversely correlated with productivity maybe. Definitely early on, especially once you showed up your calendar [inaudible 00:35:06], you have all these meetings all day, or you're being productive and you're talking to people can feel scary actually in some ways to just clear your calendar and be like, "No. Actually, there's no meetings this day." And I just need to, from first principles, focus on what I, as an individual, can do to be high leverage and really make the company go from one to 10 X, not one to 1.01. And that's a big transition.

James Currier (35:26):

To put a point on that, when you first launched, you were approached by tens and tens of people around the industry trying to work with Mammoth, and you took meetings with them, and you pursued potential partnerships with them. I remember after eight or nine months, you realized these folks aren't the folks that are going to get a ton for us. These people need us to help them with their careers and in their divisions of their companies more than we need them, and they can't really help us get done what we need to get done. And you reoriented. And your calendar had been very full, and you'd felt very productive.

James Currier (35:58):

But choosing who to work with particularly when you're building a platform like you guys are, and you're sticking applications on top of that platform, who you partner with is a critical decision. I think it's a very good point for founders to make a differentiation between busy-ness and productiveness.

Trevor Martin (36:12):

Yeah. It's an easy trap to fall into.

James Currier (36:14):

Yeah. And what's been the most challenging part of your founder journey so far? What's been the thing that has been hardest? Is it emotionally hard or intellectually hard or-

Trevor Martin (36:22):

No. It's definitely both emotionally and intellectually hard. Anyone that tells you otherwise is extremely lucky or aligned. But I think, in general, the hardest for me, I think, because this is one area where a graduate school doesn't prepare you as well is making sure I'm an awesome coach and kind of, well, advisor and coach, but in the more important sense, like coach and confidant and leader for the company in terms of managing a huge and growing team. That's thankfully something that's super exciting and incredibly interesting to me, but it's definitely somewhere where that's been a hockey stick growth area because of this different background I'm coming from.

James Currier (37:00):

Sure. You have a big board. I'm a board observer on the board since the beginning. And it gets bigger and bigger every few months, and they're all relationships and communications and conversations that you need to have. And that's all another group. And then, then you've got all the business development relationships because they all want to talk to the CEO. So, you have to manage those relationships as well. You have a huge constellation of both employees, partners, and board members, investors that you need to manage from where you sit. That's been a lot of energy and a lot of learning. What's been your favorite part of the journey so far?

Trevor Martin (37:34):

Yeah. My favorite part is definitely seeing us build product and the technology advancing and getting closer to launch. I think, seeing something go from something that was in a paper, in an academic lab, and now it's getting closer and closer to being a transformative product that could benefit billions of people is incredibly rewarding and exciting journey, and that's definitely super inspiring, I think, for everyone in the company to see that work over time.

James Currier (38:02):

And I think you guys are so lucky to have been working on this new, discover, this new invention of CRISPR. It's a whole sea change in what's possible. And to be the stewards of that into the world, I think, is an incredibly great honor and a good responsibility for you guys take on. I feel like you should be very excited. Trevor, one thing I wanted to ask you about was CRISPR makes editing biologies so much easier, so much more iterative than it's been in the past, and it could be used for great good. but it might be that someone might try to use this for great ill. Is there a way we need to think about how we protect ourselves from the great ill while allowing for the great good?

Trevor Martin (38:42):

Yeah. It's a great question, and I think in many ways, the meta conversation is similar to things like artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies that can just fundamentally change how we interact with the world. And they're speaking personally, I think, it's a key conversation that has to include not just scientists and biotechnologists, but really society at large, because I think it is a more fundamental question about where do we, as humanity or at least whatever political boundaries want to be in the United States or in the UN or whatever level we want to talk about, where do we want to go?

James Currier (39:20):

Well, as COVID has shown us, it's not just US. All these sort of genetic things are worldwide very quickly.

Trevor Martin (39:29):

Yeah, especially in biology, of course, borders can be a little bit more meaningless in terms of having any impact on what's actually going on, but I think fundamentally, it's really first having the conversation. I'm not sure there's been a very concerted effort to really have a worldwide conversation around what are the things we think are appropriate for these powerful new tools, and what are the things that we think are inappropriate. And people can sign onto that or not but at least the lines are very clear and people know which side of the lines they are on.

Trevor Martin (39:59):

I think that's there's been some initial steps towards that, but still mostly coming from scientific circles rather than political or other circles, and I think it's a conversation that truly needs to involve everyone, not just scientists and patients, of course, but politicians, religious leaders, other business leaders. Just everyone's lives will be affected by these technologies. Everyone needs to have a voice in terms of making a stand on where we as a society should bring them.

Trevor Martin (40:28):

My hope is that as these technologies continue to advance, of course, that's something that's going to happen worldwide, so it needs to be a worldwide conversation. We don't all have to agree on where those lines are, but at least there needs to be transparency around what minds we are drawing.

James Currier (40:44):

Yeah. Well, I look forward to a hearing hopefully in the next year or two about someone pulling this conversation together because it's a going to become more and more important over the next year or two, particularly as Mammoth advances in its ability to edit and to diagnose. These technologies get more and more mature. It does feel as powerful as they are for good, we do need to make sure that we draw those lines and be really clear about who's on the team and who is behaving as if they're not on the team, because it affects all of us, whether it starts in Wuhan or whether it starts in New Jersey or South San Francisco. I've got to say, it does feel like Mammoth is at the beginning of something truly significant here, and I'm very proud to be associated with, but also just proud of you for taking it on and for leading the way you're leading.

James Currier (41:30):

Seriously, it's been great to watch over the last three years. There's an energy flowing through this company is the technology and the many things it can do. Like I said, it's a lot like seeing the birth of the microchip. You can sometimes feel the energy around things, and there's certainly a lot of energy around this. I just want to thank you for being on and for doing what you're doing. And thanks for your advice to the founders and we wish you well. We know you're busy. And good luck with getting us the COVID diagnostic of our dreams in the next year. And then, I would look forward to seeing what you do after that. Thanks, Trevor.

Trevor Martin (42:02):

Yeah. Thanks for having me on. I'm always happy to chat.