People

Why a serial entrepreneur wants to bring back the woolly mammoth

It's not just a science experiment. With a famed geneticist on board, Ben Lamm is launching Colossal from stealth with $15 million in funding — and hopes of saving the planet.

An illustration of Ben Lamm and George Church superimposed in front of a woolly mammoth

If they succeed, one day Colossal co-founders Ben Lamm and George Church will stand in front of a real mammoth.

Illustration: Colossal

Ben Lamm has started five different companies, from a consumer gaming startup acquired by Zynga to a mobile software development firm acquired by Accenture.

But his new startup is his most ambitious, outlandish and world-changing one yet: Colossal, which aims to bring back the woolly mammoth and help the climate crisis in the process. He calls it "thoughtful disruptive conservation."

His goal is to start with the woolly mammoth and build tools for bringing back other extinct species from there. Lamm isn't going it alone. He's teamed up with Harvard genomics pioneer George Church to create the company. Colossal will be exclusively licensing technology from Church's lab for use in nonhumans and support the lab's research in creating an elephant-mammoth hybrid. The grand vision is a "living, walking proxy of a woolly mammoth," according to Church, but also helping restore some of the Arctic tundra by re-wilding the species.

The $15 million in seed funding raised should be enough for Colossal to bring to life two woolly mammoth calves, Lamm said, but he cautioned it was going to be a long and capital-intensive process. Lamm said he specifically sought backers, like Tim Draper's Draper Associates and Peter Diamandis' Bold Capital Partners, who understood that this wasn't going to be your typical 10-year venture return process. The lead investor in the round was Legendary Entertainment CEO Thomas Tull, who now runs his own investment firm, Tulco.

"This is a longer-term initiative. While we do think we'll have our first calves in the next four to six years — that's what our goal is — our investors understand what they're signing up for," Lamm said.

Of course, it's a colossal challenge to bring back the mammoth, and one that's been just out of reach of scientists for years. Researchers have spent the last 20 years saying that they were hoping to resurrect the mammoth. By 2011, Japanese researchers said they'd have a clone in five years (it didn't happen).

But Lamm's partner Church is considered one of the preeminent geneticists who could make it happen. He was a driving force in the Human Genome Project and had a role in developing CRISPR. (His high-profile work also caught the eye of Jeffrey Epstein, who previously supported his lab; Church apologized in 2019 about his contacts with Epstein.) One of Church's recent obsessions has been reviving extinct species, and he's been hoping to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid for years.

"George is really excited about bringing back the woolly mammoth, so obviously that caught my attention in the headlines," Lamm said. "But once I started reading and truly understanding not just the science in emerging tech angle that I find fascinating as an emerging tech entrepreneur, but the 'why' behind bringing back the mammoth, that's what really inspired me and led me to jump on a call with him."

After the first phone call, Lamm said he couldn't sleep that night and emailed Church first thing in the morning to ask to come visit the lab. They've now spent over a year laying the groundwork for Colossal with Lamm serving as CEO of the new joint venture.

It's not unusual for Church, whose lab is known for spinning out over a dozen startups, to partner with an outside CEO, even if Lamm's resume is not the obvious one for bringing back a mammoth: Most recently he was co-founder and CEO of Hypergiant, an AI company that is working with NASA and the Department of Homeland Security.

Lamm said his strength is in hiring smarter people around him to work. The other co-founders include Colossal COO Kent Wakeford, the former president of Integral Ad Science; chief legal officer Brian Beard, a former managing partner at Wilson Sonsini; and chief business officer Peter Phillips, the former COO of Giphy who also worked at Marvel. The head of biological sciences at the company is Eriona Hysolli, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Church's lab for six years. The company also has a scientific advisory board and an executive advisory board, along with bioethicists it's working with.

Even with the big names on board, Colossal will still have to grapple with a fundamental question in all of this work, one made famous by "Jurassic Park": Just because you have the technology, should you even do it?

Lamm acknowledges that this company will spark a lot of ethical debates around extinction and re-wilding a species, and he's prepared for it. His team has been working with bioethicists from the beginning, and he's also done a lot of modeling work to try to understand what could change. There's promising signs from Pleistocene Park where Russian scientists are studying whether restoring the Arctic tundra will result in fewer emissions of greenhouse gases.

While climate is a compelling argument, it's unclear how effective reintroducing mammoths into the wild will be.

"It's a big gamble to put your climate-change mitigation hopes on a herd of woolly mammoths — and if it did work, it would require numbers in the hundreds of thousands to have an effect," wrote paleobiologist Tori Herridge in 2014.

There's also a debate in the scientific community on how much science should be focused on bringing back extinct species versus preserving species on the edge of extinction. Woolly mammoths, for sure, are cool animals to start with, but scientists have called into question whether they should be the first big test.

Still, in the worst-case scenario, if bringing back herds of mammoths sets off chains of unintended consequences, Lamm said mammoths are easier to control because of their size.

"It's a lot easier to remove a species from a location ... if it's a large megafauna versus making genetically-modified mosquitoes and releasing them into the wild," Lamm said. (Genetically-modified mosquitoes are currently flying free in the Florida Keys.)

While reviving the mammoth will likely generate headlines, Lamm points out that it's about really about developing a de-extinction toolkit that can help save other species and allow them to thrive in the wild. And hopefully, as an intended consequence, helping our planet too.

"We're focused on loss of biodiversity and we're looking at restoration," Lamm said. "It's not just about bringing back the mammoth."

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