This billion-dollar startup wants to bring back the dodo

A rare fragment of a Dodo femur bone is displayed for photographs next to an image of a member of the extinct bird species at Christie's auction house's premises in London, on March 27, 2013. Colossal Biosciences has raised an additional US$150mil from investors to develop genetic technologies that the company claims will help to bring back some extinct species, including the dodo and the woolly mammoth. Other scientists are skeptical that such feats are really possible, or even advisable for conservation. — AP

A biotechnology startup that promises to resurrect woolly mammoths is now the first “de-extinction unicorn”, with a valuation said to be over a US$1bil (RM4.26bil) before bringing back a single lost species. Colossal Biosciences, the Dallas-based startup, is making public a new round of investment this week that will help fund its effort to bring back perhaps the most famously extinct animal of them all: the dodo.

Reintroducing mammoths to Alaska or dodos to Mauritius sounds unrealistic, even silly, and has drawn scepticism from paleo-geneticists and other experts who worry that the effects of de-extinction would be unpredictable. Yet Colossal has continued to draw support from investors, including celebrities, and on Jan 31 announced another US$150mil (RM639.87mil) for a total of US$225mil (RM959.80mil) since 2021. A person familiar with the company said with the latest round the startup is valued at about US$1.5bil (RM6.39bil).

For some investors, a live dodo is less important than the scientific breakthroughs generated in the push to de-extinction. “Along the lines of being able to bring a species back, we’re going to learn things we can’t learn in a wet lab,” said Thomas Tull, a tech investor who produced the movie Jurassic World and made money investing in scrubs company Figs. His United States Innovative Technology Fund led the latest round. “When you’re doing big things like this, who knows what you’re going to discover along the way.”

The influx of cash comes as the financial world has taken a new interest in the biodiversity crisis. The United Nations conference on biodiversity in December 2022 attracted representatives from Wall Street, and global banks are dabbling with “debt-for-nature” swaps that would protect vulnerable ecosystems in exchange for renegotiating sovereign debt in developing nations. Colossal is positioning itself as a solution to the damage done to the natural world and co-founder Ben Lamm says we have the opportunity to reverse human-inflicted biodiversity loss.

Just how the restoration of long-dead species would pay off for investors is an open question. Colossal has already spun off a software company that raised another US$30mil (RM127.97mil), with Colossal’s investors receiving the equity in the new firm. The company suggests other promising areas for future spinoffs might include gene editing and artificial wombs.

Company insiders regularly bring up the space race when discussing the company's prospects as an example of a seemingly-impossible goal that was not only eventually reached but also generated collateral inventions that we still use today. “What’s nice about these extinct species is they are systems problems,” said Lamm in an interview. Solving a systems problem requires innovation in multiple areas – and therefore creates breakthroughs that can lead to more spinoffs. “It’s like the moon landing. That was a systems problem.”

Lamm, who co-founded Colossal with Harvard University geneticist George Church, also believes that Colossal’s moonshot-level goal gives the company a competitive edge on recruiting people who would rather research vanished beasts than less exotic projects. “You can work on yeast or you can work on bringing back an extinct species,” he said.

The dodo is the third vanished animal on Colossal’s de-extinction to-do list. In March the startup said it would bring back the woolly mammoth, and in August added a pledge to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger, or the thylacine, which was declared extinct in the 1930s. The company says it’s on track to produce mammoth calves by 2028.

The steady stream of announcements has captivated a collection of celebrity investors, including Paris Hilton and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, who don’t necessarily confer an aura of scientific seriousness. But Colossal has also enlisted less-famous investors with considerable pedigree, although it is unclear how involved they are. “Strategically, it’s less about the mammoths and more about the capability” to engineer animals and plants, the CIA’s venture capital arm In-Q-Tel said in a September blog post in September when it invested in Colossal.

“They’re solving complex problems, and we’ve been pleased with the progress so far,” said Jim Breyer, an early backer of Facebook who invests in Colossal through his firm Breyer Capital. “Long-term, there will be significant revenue opportunities around sustainability, conservation, and re-wilding.”

Tom Chi of At One Ventures, a founding member at Google X, Alphabet Inc’s innovation lab, is the only independent member of Colossal’s three-member board of directors. He has made ambitious investments in other difficult endeavours such as Helios Labs, which seeks to extract metals and oxygen from the surface of the moon and Mars.

Chi dismisses the focus on Hollywood investors. “Are they mucking with the way we do the science? No,” he said in an interview. In fact, Chi said, the science behind Colossal was so tough that many of its backers didn’t fully understand it. “It would probably take eight hours to explain to a celebrity.”

Traditional investors remain sceptical about the field. “I think the de-extinction angle might hold promise for scientific discovery, but probably very hard for venture in terms of market, cost and speed to scale,” said Helen Liang, managing partner of Founders X Ventures. “The bigger question is what business values could be unlocked and the justification on the cost of capital in doing that.”

The dodo was a flightless bird that was roughly twice the size of a turkey and lived on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, about 550 miles (885 kilometers) east of Madagascar. The last known one was killed in the late 1600s, after people arrived on the island and hunted the bird for food, overtook their habitat and introduced pigs and monkeys that ate their eggs.

Just getting a dodo sample was a painful undertaking for Colossal.

Beth Shapiro, the company’s lead paleogeneticist and a professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, has been trying to extract genetic material from the dead bird for most of her career. She’s scraped the inside of dodo skulls and sweated in sugar plantations on Mauritius. She finally got lucky with a well-preserved specimen kept in a Danish museum, and Colossal now says it has the only known high-quality, complete dodo DNA.

Resurrecting the bird would be just the start. Shapiro warned that any dodo released into the wild would need to be protected from the predators who wiped them out centuries ago. Small islands off the coast of Mauritius, where giant tortoises have also been reintroduced, could be a good place. “Once we have functional dodos,” she said, “we’ll have to create a habitat that can sustain them.” – Bloomberg

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