- Janice Chen, Ph.D., is one of the cofounders of Mammoth Biosciences, a biotech company focused on CRISPR gene editing applications.
- As a graduate student, Chen worked in the lab of Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering work in CRISPR.
- Mammoth reached unicorn status last September after reaching a valuation of $1 billion.
- With eyes on the future of gene editing, Chen and her colleagues are aiming to make Mammoth a $100 billion CRISPR leader.
- Chen is a sibling of Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen.
Janice Chen, Ph.D., one of Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen’s siblings, is on a mission to build a $100 billion biotech company.
In 2018, she co-founded Mammoth Biosciences with Trevor Martin, Lucas Harrington and Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry two years later for her pioneering work in CRISPR gene editing. Doudna also served as Chen’s mentor while she pursued her doctorate degree in molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Mammoth is built on Chen’s work as a graduate student researcher in Doudna’s lab. Since the dawn of COVID-19 in 2020, the startup has seen accelerated growth as it snagged $100 million in multiple contracts and government grants.
The company’s valuation also hit $1 billion after a deal with Amazon, Apple’s Tim Cook and venture capital firm Mayfield, among others. But Chen and her colleagues are gunning for more.
CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is essentially a tool for editing genes. It has wide-reaching applications, from correcting genetic anomalies to preventing diseases to improving agricultural yield.
Chen paved the way for a particular gene-editing enzyme to be used as a diagnostic test. Her method allowed to locate a specific sequence of viral DNA, cut it, and yield a fluorescent signal to indicate the result.
She has since received multiple accolades. She was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Healthcare list in 2019, Business Insider’s 30 Under 40 in Healthcare list in 2020, Endpoints Top 20 Women in Biopharma in 2020, and MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 in 2021.
Headquartered in Brisbane, California, Mammoth describes its work as “reading and writing the code of life.” The company is on a track to discover and develop new CRISPR systems to solve specific biological problems.
“The best analog is, before you had Intel and Microsoft, if somebody wanted to build a new application, they would have to build a whole new computer function with an operating system,” Ursheet Parikh, co-leader of Mayfield’s engineering biology investment practice, told TechCrunch after a funding round in September. “You don’t have to build a CRISPR solution from the ground up. You can work with Mammoth to find the right proteins for specific problems.”
Mammoth was among seven companies granted $249 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create rapid tests for COVID-19. Through the funding, Mammoth scaled up its DETECTR BOOST SARS-CoV-2 Reagent Kit, which has so far been authorized by the FDA for emergency use.
Chen, 30, is now leading a team of around 130 employees as Mammoth’s chief technology officer. The startup is still hiring.
In an interview with Invesbrain’s Helen Albert, she stressed the importance of adapting quickly to changes, as a graduate student who suddenly became a CTO.
“You just have to accept that there’s so much that you don’t know and you have to constantly learn very quickly. I think part of what was absolutely critical is being able to adapt quickly, be flexible, but also bring in really, really good people. The best way to scale a company is to bring in people who are smarter than you, have done this before, and have much greater expertise in particular areas to help you take these new ideas, and bring them into the company.”
She also offered a piece of advice for others:
“I would say don’t be afraid to take risks. That was such an important mindset for me. It’s OK to think big, you’ve got to be outside your comfort zone, that’s the kind of message that I think young entrepreneurs should take home.”
Featured Image via TEDx Talks