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The Future of Healthcare: “Using CRISPR to build the search engine for biology” With Trevor Martin CEO of Mammoth Biosciences

Similar to how Google built a search engine for the internet, Mammoth Biosciences has used CRISPR to build the search engine for biology. Our CRISPR-based platform can search and find nucleic acids that are indicative of disease in samples ranging from blood to saliva. Using this proprietary CRISPR technology licensed exclusively from the University of […]

Similar to how Google built a search engine for the internet, Mammoth Biosciences has used CRISPR to build the search engine for biology. Our CRISPR-based platform can search and find nucleic acids that are indicative of disease in samples ranging from blood to saliva. Using this proprietary CRISPR technology licensed exclusively from the University of California and further CRISPR technologies developed in-house, we’re creating easy and affordable tests that allow fast, simultaneous detection of multiple conditions, from common infections to cancer. Our vision is to create a test as simple as adding a liquid sample to a disposable strip and reading the result through Mammoth’s app. In under an hour, we want people to be able to know the status of their health on their terms and in the privacy of their own home.


Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Trevor Martin. As Co-founder and CEO of Mammoth Biosciences, Trevor is leading the company with the mission to democratize diagnostics and empower individuals to better understand their health. To make his vision a reality, Mammoth has developed the world’s first and only CRISPR-based platform capable of detecting DNA or RNA — unlocking the capability of testing for any disease in new and more effective ways. Trevor kicked off his career in science earning his undergraduate degree at Princeton, and then went on to complete his Ph.D. in Biology at Stanford University with a National Science Foundation fellowship, developing methods to map the determinants of quantitative traits in both humans and microbes. In addition to teaching courses at Stanford, Trevor has penned educational guides for university classes across the globe and his work has been featured in outlets like FiveThirtyEight and The Atlantic.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m always looking for opportunities to work with exciting and motivated people and give them over a hundred and ten percent of my contribution. Over the course of my life, I’ve learned and benefited so much from the work and wisdom of others that I feel a deep obligation and eagerness to give back. During my early academic career, I recognized an opportunity to give back and make an impact through computational biology, a field that had just started to embrace new techniques from other disciplines and had data sets explode in size and availability. Since then the field has matured, and while there is certainly still potential to make a big impact there, I wanted to find an area that captured that same spirit of limitless possibility and no-holds-barred innovation as I felt in the early days of that work. Surveying the industry, the nascent field of synthetic biology and of CRISPR, pioneered by Jennifer Doudna’s lab at Berkeley, was an obvious candidate. In particular, it was growing more and more apparent that CRISPR had huge potential in a wide variety of fields beyond the initial use case of gene editing. What sealed the deal though, and what makes building Mammoth such an exciting part of my career, is the company’s work to utilize CRISPR for the democratization of both diagnostics and the CRISPR platform itself — and building a team of individuals who are driven by this mission.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve found that chance encounters can turn into some of the most important moments of your career. For example, at the start of my entrepreneurial journey, I connected with some of my now closest and most trusted mentors through almost every type of event except explicit networking events — this includes everything from scientific conferences, to coffee shops and even rock climbing gyms. These experiences have really driven home the value of keeping an open mind and not having preconceived notions about how things should work.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Similar to how Google built a search engine for the internet, Mammoth Biosciences has used CRISPR to build the search engine for biology. Our CRISPR-based platform can search and find nucleic acids that are indicative of disease in samples ranging from blood to saliva. Using this proprietary CRISPR technology licensed exclusively from the University of California and further CRISPR technologies developed in-house, we’re creating easy and affordable tests that allow fast, simultaneous detection of multiple conditions, from common infections to cancer. Our vision is to create a test as simple as adding a liquid sample to a disposable strip and reading the result through Mammoth’s app. In under an hour, we want people to be able to know the status of their health on their terms and in the privacy of their own home.

How do you think this will change the world?

Mammoth’s disease detection test will bring CRISPR out of the lab and into daily life, changing our healthcare system as we know it. Our company is exploring various methods for delivering CRISPR-based disease detection tests, one of which could be a disposable test strip, which could detect anything from common infectious diseases, like the flu, to even cancer. Imagine, no more doctors visits to check your child for strep before he or she goes back to school, no more waiting at the ER for bronchitis results, and no more disparity between people who can and can’t afford checkups at the clinic — with this test, people will gain access to knowledge about their own health and ultimately take back control over this costly part of the healthcare system.

Beyond having an impact in the US, Mammoth has the potential to change how hospitals and clinics work all around the world, especially in the developing world where doctors have limited access to advanced medical equipment. Whereas it’s often expensive and cumbersome to transport, in contrast, Mammoth’s test will not require refrigeration or instrumentation so doctors can go straight to the point-of-care and diagnose in real-time. This is essential during massive disease outbreaks, like Ebola, where the disease is highly contagious, transmits rapidly before symptoms show, and takes up to three days to diagnose in a lab setting. Ultimately, the faster the diagnosis, the faster the treatment response will be, and the closer we are to making a healthier world.

Additionally, Mammoth can affect the population’s health through the prevention of disease outbreak in the agriculture industry. By using Mammoth’s proprietary CRISPR technology, partners could test for E.coli outbreaks or other food-borne illnesses before reaching grocery store shelves. Even in restaurants, workers could take a single swab of the kitchen counter to test for food safety, demonstrating the potential flexibility and versatility of Mammoth’s platform. Soon enough, Mammoth will dramatically accelerate the detection process for new, unknown outbreaks and change the narrative when it comes to the world’s most-feared pandemics.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

If knowledge is power, then the main effect of Mammoth’s tests will be more empowered people. Of course, our intent is for people to know as much about their health as possible, however, there are cases where we need to be careful about how this information is delivered. For example, tests that detect cancer will be more useful if provided in a more clinical setting, where there are healthcare professionals available to communicate next steps and support. We always want individuals to understand and be comfortable with how to act on the information they just received.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Over the past few years, technologies have made great advancements in the healthcare space, especially with regard to personalized medicines and targeted therapies. But not nearly the same amount of attention and focus has been brought to disease detection and diagnostics — a global market worth over $45 billion. The irony here is clear: diseases cannot be adequately treated without having first been accurately diagnosed.

While finishing my Ph.D. in Biology at Stanford University, I embraced this challenge and brought together a world-class team of scientists from both Stanford and Berkeley to leverage new technological advancements in CRISPR so that we can democratize access to powerful diagnostics.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Right now, our team is focused on building its CRISPR search engine, so we’re continuing to experiment with each CRISPR protein, and even discover new proteins. This way, we can determine each proteins’ potential applications and optimize our disease detection tests based on those results.

In addition to sharing our research with academics and health companies alike, we’re hoping to change the public perception of CRISPR so that it’s not viewed as only a gene-editing tool. First and foremost, CRISPR is used to find DNA or RNA sequences — whether it’s used to find then cut the gene, or find then turn the gene on and off, is up to the researcher. At Mammoth, we combine biomarkers with the CRISPR protein to find and detect genes, which is a non-invasive use case, and therefore, does not run into many of the more controversial aspects of CRISPR. The more people become aware of CRISPR as biology’s search engine, the faster I believe our technology will be adopted.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • Bias yourself towards action.

The advantage you have as a startup is speed and ability to make decisions quickly. Choose a direction and commit to it, but also make sure you can measure if it’s working. If it’s not working, don’t be afraid to take action to change course again. Measurement and feedback are what allows you to make decisions quickly and confidently.

  • “Passionate beliefs held loosely.”

One of my mentors first told me this and it has proven itself as one of the most important pieces of advice. Passion and belief in what you are working on is critical, but you don’t want to hold that belief to the exclusion of having your mind changed by data and new information. Critically, this does not mean that you waffle based on the opinions of the day — instead, it means that you are confident in your beliefs, but always challenging them and have a willingness to update them.

  • Make time to help others.

We have all benefited from others advice and support in our careers, you should make sure to always make time to pay this benefit forward — especially to those who don’t traditionally have access to support networks in your field.

  • Make time to help yourself.

You can’t help others and add maximum value if you aren’t in a good mental space yourself. Sometimes taking a step back and going to the gym can result in the most productive thinking.

  • Think big.

We all have limited time and it only makes sense to spend that time working on important impactful problems. Accomplishing a small goal can often be almost as much work as tackling a large one.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

The old saying “the only constant is change” is maybe overused, but nevertheless, it is the most relevant and core principle for the evolution of work. As new types of jobs are created and existing jobs evolve, the most critical skill someone can possess and the only “future proofing” possible is to be adept at embracing new ideas and skills. Increasingly, education is not something that should be relegated to ivory towers but should be a core part of career development.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

The global disease detection market is worth over 45 billion dollars. While at Mammoth, we’re focusing on tapping into the healthcare aspect of this market first, but there are also so many other verticals in this area, including agriculture, oil and gas, and forensics. Given the expansive impact here, I’d continue to invest in technologies that make detecting disease fast and accessible and applying them to markets outside of healthcare as well.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

The core principle guiding my life and career is that I want to contribute back more than I have received. Simply growing up in a country like the United States gives a lot of advantages that many people around the world do not have — and I feel like there is a responsibility to take advantage of this and leave the planet a better place than we found it. Zooming in, this philosophy makes sense at a career and interpersonal level as well, where you should always be striving to create value whether that is in a business deal or supporting others in their journey through life.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

By far the most important mindset you can have for success is to actually be okay with failure. All too often failure is seen as a dead-end rather than a learning experience and jumping off point for future success (even if that means some more failure along the way)! When you are aiming for important goals they are inherently difficult — otherwise they would already have been accomplished. That means that on some level you need to be a bit “irrational” and be willing to take bets and try things others have shied away from. Importantly, to actually learn from failure, you need to be your biggest critic and be open to change. If you aren’t, you’re missing out on the growth that comes from falling and getting back up again.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Mammoth Biosciences is building the search engine for biology. The first application on this search platform we’ve developed is the world’s first and only CRISPR-based detection platform capable of sensing any biomarker or disease with DNA/RNA in a rapid and highly sensitive format. Mammoth is on a mission to both democratize access to CRISPR tools through our search platform and to leverage the power of CRISPR to democratize disease detection by bringing accurate and affordable testing out of the laboratory and into the point-of-care. The company is co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, Stanford PhDs Trevor Martin and Ashley Tehranchi, and Berkeley Ph.D. students Janice Chen and Lucas Harrington. The company’s funding was led by top investors including Mayfield, NFX, 8VC, AME Cloud, Wireframe, Kairos, and Boom Capital.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trevormmartin/ or Twitter: @martintrevor_

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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