Doudna founded Berkeley-based Caribou Biosciences early in 2012, just as her paper with Charpentier was published. The company is her commercial stake in Crispr-Cas9, and, backed by UC Berkeley’s lawyers, she’s launched a patent action against MIT researcher Feng Zhang, who contends that he invented the technique about the same time and has the right to commercialize it. Caribou aims to bring Crispr-Cas9 to all domains of the life sciences, from agricultural and industrial biotech to medicine and molecular biology. The company’s coolly boastful motto: “Engineering any genome, at any site, in any way.”
Caribou’s one-story office and lab are in a slightly scruffy neighborhood near the freeway on the Oakland side of Berkeley. I meet there with Chief Scientific Officer Andy May. At 43, May is one of the older employees at the company, which numbers two dozen and counting.
“Why does the sign in your waiting room say ‘The Bakery’?” I ask.
“Because this used to be a Twinkie factory,” he says.
According to May, Crispr-Cas9 is the biggest thing to come along in molecular biology since the development of PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, in the 1980s. Thanks to PCR, scientists could amplify DNA in great volumes and thereby “read” the genetic sequences of all sorts of organisms in all their variations. “We’ve had the ability to read genetic information, but we haven’t had the ability to write it back into cells,” May says. “Now we can write it back and edit it. We’ve closed the cycle.”
Rachel Haurwitz, Caribou’s 30-year-old CEO and co-founder, who earned her Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology under Doudna, joins us in the conference room. Caribou has secured funding from corporate giants DuPont and Novartis for Crispr-Cas9 projects, though Haurwitz won’t tell me what they are specifically. “We’re a platform technology company,” she says. “We make Cas9 proteins, and we have the tools, the bioinformatics, to analyze large numbers of experiments. We’re driving to understand the details, to gain understanding and explain why it’s safe.”
Haurwitz has honed her sales pitch. “To really benefit mankind,” she says, “you have to commercialize. There is investor excitement, but they understand that [the payout] could be a decade away. We’ve been building the plane as we’ve been flying it. If you win, it’s a tremendous win.”
From Caribou I crawl south through the traffic to Santa Clara, at the base of the San Francisco Peninsula. Here is the headquarters of Agilent Technologies, a worldwide supplier for the biotech industry and other scientific research with $4 billion in annual revenue. The two employees I meet with — Stephen Laderman, director of Agilent Research Laboratories, and Laurakay Bruhn, who oversees product development for Crispr-Cas9 — are a generation older than May and Haurwitz. Their conference room is twice as large and their chairs twice as plush. Without doubting the importance of what they call “the gene-editing explosion,” they aren’t yet sure of the value of Crispr-Cas9 to their company.
“It’s a future play,” Laderman says cagily. “We’re not just making the tool, [but also] making measurements that determine what the tool did.” By measurement, he means the validation of experiments, the part that investigators sometimes neglect. It’s one thing to buy a Crispr-Cas9 package, a cool new tool for your project, and another thing to ensure that it has worked. For example, Agilent might help a drug company determine any off-target effects of a new gene-therapy product.
Caribou’s May and Haurwitz, who offer the same service, imply they’d do it better. They refer to Agilent as “a hardware company, selling picks and shovels.” “We do sometimes talk about ourselves as selling picks and shovels,” Laderman concedes. Adds Bruhn: “We make RNA really well. [Customers] don’t want to make their own picks. They want to find the gold.”