By Carlie Trotter
Ahead of his appearance at the Sydney edition of the famed South by Southwest futurist festival out of Texas, serial tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm lets us in on his Jurassic Park-inflected plan to halt the nature crisis by genetically resurrecting woolly mammoths and Tasmanian tigers.
Sparkly-eyed and affable, 41-year-old tech executive Ben Lamm possesses a unique talent for thinking beyond what most of us believe is possible and seems to be living out his dream role at the helm of Colossal Biosciences, the de-extinction company he founded with Harvard geneticist George Church two years ago.
The audacious goal of the Dallas-based startup, which has raised US$225m in funding to date, is to rewind biodiversity loss by reverse-engineering lost keystone species such as the woolly mammoth. In pushing the boundaries of CRISPR gene-editing technology, Colossal and its worldwide coalition of biologists are developing software and equipment to advance genomic science in general, with major potential benefits for food production and human healthcare as well as wildlife conservation. While the company posits that returning iceage beasts to the Arctic could support the healthy grassland ecosystem needed to slow the thawing of the permafrost (Earth’s largest carbon sink), its gene-hacking research will also inform disruptive conservation efforts to save the modern-day elephant by accelerating the development of vaccines against life-threatening viruses, for example.
If this quest to heal our hurting planet seems like a left turn in Lamm’s software-oriented career, he says working at the intersection of science fact and fiction feels oddly familiar. With five successful startup exits under his belt, including the sale of military-focused AI platform Hypergiant in August, Lamm knows plenty about commercialising emerging technologies. “I’m attracted to technology problems. I look at core systems and think about how we should engineer them, and de-extinction is a systems problem; the hardest I’ve taken on to date but still a systems problem,” he suggests. “With Colossal, I’m living a bit in the future and a bit in the past—sometimes 10,000 years in the past—but I’ve always lived a little bit in the future. I entered the mobile gaming, conversational intelligence and AI industries before they had matured, and didn’t know much about satellite systems when I got into that category, but I like to work with far smarter people than myself to see how we can leverage technology to build a better world.”
“…I like to work with far smarter people than myself to see how we can leverage technology to build a better world.”
He continues: “A lot of entrepreneurs, me included, have said they’re creating this or that company because they want to have an impact, but when you are given an opportunity like Colossal to truly change the world, not taking it would feel like hypocrisy.” Fuelled by his own fierce curiosity and the possible long-horizon returns, Lamm could not resist the chance to collaborate with George Church and other scientists who have been diligently unlocking DNA secrets for over a decade, including thylacine authority Andrew Pask at the University of Melbourne and dodo expert Beth Shapiro. “If we’re successful in our journey, the world’s never the same,” he says.
“[Before Colossal] no one had said ‘we’re going to solve this problem, we’re going to treat it like the moon landing and give it the infrastructure, brain power and money it deserves’. What if you could go back and invest in NASA? I’m not saying we’re anywhere near as cool as NASA, but I think a lot of people would take that investment.” This philosophy appears to be shared by big-name investors in the firm, such as Seattle biotech venture capitalist Robert Nelsen, Hollywood exec Thomas Tull (producer of 2015’s Jurassic World, funnily enough) and crypto pioneers the Winklevoss twins. In June, having secured unicorn status with a valuation of more than US$1bn, Colossal appeared on Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential Companies list.
Lamm believes investor interest in Colossal coincided with a broader “hunger for moonshots” following the introspection of the Covid era. He says: “It was the initial feedback of the public and the scientific community that drove us to raise more capital to accelerate our work, perhaps because when we were all locked down we realised how quickly things can be taken away from us, how we should be making the time that we have count, and at least try to do bigger and more important things, even if we fail.” According to recent computer modelling by ecologists at Flinders University, 10 per cent of the plants and animals documented today will have disappeared by 2050, while Australia has long borne the shame of the highest mammal extinction rate in the world.
“…we should be making the time that we have count, and at least try to do bigger and more important things, even if we fail.”
Sharing Colossal’s latest learnings with an Australian audience is particularly important to Lamm, whose standard work schedule is an almost 24-hour one owing to the international nature of the firm’s research partnerships and advisor network. “Last time I was in Melbourne, a bartender jumped over the bar to show me her thylacine tattoo. This animal only died out in the 1930s so we’re carrying the cultural guilt of that; working on something that will have cultural impact as well as scientific and ecological impact is inspiring,” he says. Actor Chris Hemsworth is among the local investors supporting Colossal, and the company claims to be seeking counsel from Indigenous leaders as well as conservation groups such as Aussie Ark. Following Professor Pask’s sequencing of the Tassie tiger genome in 2017, funding and technical support from Colossal is now helping his team develop artificial womb technology to reanimate Australia’s only apex predator marsupial (and ultimately aid in the protection of still-living species like the koala). The absence of the wolf-like creature is thought to have led to Tasmanian devils becoming endangered by allowing weak and diseased individuals to survive longer and infect others, and to pest species becoming overabundant. The quality of preserved DNA means the thylacine is likely the first candidate for genetic resurrection, with a decade from now touted as a feasible timeframe.
You need not be a scientist to see how artificial womb technology could change the course of human history. “That’s actually the most sci-fi thing we’re working on, and because of how close I am to the scientists every day, even that doesn’t even feel [futuristic] anymore,” says Lamm. The obscure discoveries and sequential innovations on the journey to deextinction are what really interest the entrepreneur. “You can’t just go solve one little piece of biology; you have to build the computational biology, the cellular engineering, the advanced embryology… we have microscopes with lasers attached to them that drill holes into cells to make somatic cell nuclear transfer (the technique used to clone Dolly the sheep) more efficient—now that does feel a little Jurassic Park-y,” he adds.
Barely a year after launch, Colossal had spun out its first business based on AI software developed to rapidly organise the vast amount of data that researchers were amassing. Lamm says: “I suppose when you have a software hammer [like I do], everything looks like a software nail, but it came about because we were working with six different platforms and when we showed this new one to collaborators, they said ‘wow, this would be useful in another research area that has nothing to do with Colossal’.” It is highly likely, he adds, that Colossal will spin out another company in the next 12 months.
Of course Lamm has received his fair share of ‘playing God’ accusations, but he claims the criticism is welcome and has enlisted prominent bioethicists to sit on Colossal’s advisory board. “We started with the mammoth because George was pretty far along on it, and there’s a large halo effect in how we can help elephant conservation. But anytime you do something big and bold, there is going to be pushback, and while positive feedback is awesome, you a learn a lot more from your critics,” he says. “The onus is on us to be transparent and to take informed critical feedback [on board] because we’re not going to get everything right.”
A key reason the company’s website keeps expanding and a docuseries is now in the works is its ambition to inspire the next generation of scientists. “Until this business, I’d never had kids emailing me. They send me animal pictures they’ve drawn and ask, ‘when can I see this?’” he says, adding that the rate of innovation and invention at Colossal’s headquarter lab makes for a motivating workplace. “I was giving a lab tour to one of our investors recently and explaining, ‘this is the first time ever this has been done,’ and he interrupted with, ‘you know you’ve said that five times in the last hour?’ I hadn’t realised I was repeating myself but there are a lot of worldfirsts happening here.” Recent headline achievements by Colossal scientists include the assembly of high-quality reference genomes for both the African and Asian elephant, confirming the latter as a 99.6 per cent match with its ice-age ancestor. Naturally talkative and energetic, Lamm finds it tough to stay tightlipped about the day-to-day wins of the lab and believes the public will be surprised with how soon his team can unveil some big scientific leaps. “I’ll receive negative feedback like ‘sure you’ve done this, but everyone knows that part isn’t possible’ and I have to stay quiet because we’re going through the peer review or patent process,” he says before adding conspiratorially, “but what I really want to say is ‘actually sir/ ma’am, we’ve already solved that’.”
Hear Ben Lamm in conversation at the first international edition of South by Southwest, which features talks and experiences spanning the realms of technology, music and screen across various Sydney venues from 15—22 October.