Trevor Martin is the cofounder and CEO of Mammoth Biosciences which develops novel CRISPR applications for disease detection, research, agriculture, biodefense, and more. The company has raised over $75 million investors from top tier investors such as Mayfield Fund, 8VC, or NFX to name a few.
In this episode you will learn:
- How hiring has changed due to COVID-19
- Culture add versus culture fit hiring
- Who to hire
- Trevor’s top advice for other founders
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About Trevor Martin:
Trevor Martin, co-founder and CEO of Mammoth Biosciences, is leading the company on a mission to democratize access to the next generation of CRISPR tools for therapeutics and diagnostics. The Mammoth team, including fellow co-founder and CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, has built the world’s broadest CRISPR platform and the world’s first CRISPR-based diagnostics platform capable of detecting any RNA or DNA biomarker.
Trevor Martin kicked off his career in science at Princeton as an undergraduate – in his time there, he conducted independent research in quantitative biology and was ultimately awarded the top honor for his senior thesis in molecular biology.
After Princeton, Trevor Martin went on to complete his Ph.D. in Biology at Stanford University with a NSF fellowship, combining techniques from statistics and genetics and developing methods around mapping the determinants of quantitative traits in both humans and microbes.
In addition to having developed and taught multiple graduate level courses in statistics at Stanford, Trevor Martin has penned educational guides for university courses across the globe. His work has been featured in outlets like FiveThirtyEight and The Atlantic, and he has been the featured healthcare honoree on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2018.
Connect with Trevor Martin:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a really interesting founder. I think it’s definitely a very interesting segment that he’s tackling, and he is definitely making some waves. So, without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Trevor Martin, welcome to the show.
Trevor Martin: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Alejandro: Originally born in Atlanta. How was life growing up there?
Trevor Martin: It’s very different from where I am now, but I’m probably the only person in my family that doesn’t have a really thick southern accent because I listened to too much NPR as a kid. But I definitely enjoy going back for the holidays.
Alejandro: Nice. Did you have people in your family that were into business or entrepreneurship, or did that evolve over time?
Trevor Martin: No. My parents are both in highly technical fields in chemistry and software. Then, my other relatives are either in the trucking industry or various random fields.
Alejandro: What got you into molecular biology?
Trevor Martin: When I was in high school and middle school and elementary school, I hated biology. I would refer to it as stamp collecting because that was a lot of my introduction to the field. So, I was in love with physics and chemistry. I don’t think I understand how much these fields interacted with biology. I always didn’t have any affinity for biology or molecular biology when I was young. All that changed when I went to college, though.
Alejandro: Nice. So, let’s talk about that. How did you develop things further, and then what happened in Princeton because it was a very nice segue into the place where everything would start for you?
Trevor Martin: Yeah. When I entered college, I was focused on physics and excited about the amazing physics department they have at Princeton. But the summer before I started college there, I got a pamphlet about this new program they were starting there called integrated science. I wasn’t entirely sure what it is, but I knew that it would allow me to fulfill a lot of my general educational requirements quickly so that I could focus more on physics, so I signed up for it, not really thinking too much about it frankly. But as it turned out, it was a program that had been started by this really amazing professor named David Botstein. The point of the program was to show that all these different fields are integrated – everything from computer science to mathematics to physics to chemistry, and you could leverage all these fields to make huge advances in understanding biology, which, at the time, especially for undergraduate education was a novel concept. In this program, I fell in love with quantitative and computational biology and started doing research very early on in my undergraduate career.
Alejandro: Obviously, this got you from undergrad to graduate school. What was that transition like?
Trevor Martin: Another amazing thing in the program was that almost everyone in the integrative science curriculum went on to graduate school, whereas most of our peers were going into consulting or especially people going from offshoot sciences. I think that’s a testament to the power of the program and also the power of the whole community that we built up as part of that. I knew immediately upon graduating that I wanted to go into graduate school, so I went over to Stanford, where I could get my Ph.D. in biology in the Hunter Fraser Lab. I was focused on computational and quantitative biology, and in particular, an extension of a lot of the stuff I had been doing as an undergraduate.
Alejandro: There is where everything happened with Mammoth Biosciences. How did you come across this idea, this concept, the team? Tell us about this.
Trevor Martin: Over the course of my graduate career, the field I was in was making incredible advances, which are super exciting and is coming into its own. In terms of my own skillset, I see a lot of my focus being on where can I bring in unique insights across fields? By then, trying to focus on being the best biologist possible, and maybe trying to be a really great biologist, and also a really great statistician, and unifying these skills to create something exciting. As the field is advanced and is now all biology is computational and quantitative biology, which is awesome. I felt like I had a little bit less to contribute there. One of the things I started doing was, first of all, applying some of these skills from now quantitative biology to even other areas like sociology and journalism, and I even published a couple of articles with places like [6:39] and the Atlantic. As I was going through this soul-searching, I was looking for fields which felt like the intersection of biology and physics and math, right at the cusp of when that was taking off. The obvious answer to me is the field of synthetic biology and the really amazing new tools and advances that are coming out there. In particular, I started to get really curious about how synthetic biology could be applied to fields like diagnostics. A field, until very recently, with things like the COVID-19 pandemic, I think, are huge amounts of underinvestment relative to its potential. So, I got enamored with this intersection of synthetic biology and diagnostics. During this process, as well, I came across some papers that had recently been published at that time by this famous professor in the field named Jennifer Doudna, and in particular, went by – at the time graduate students in the lab, Janice Chen and Lucas Harrington, that actually showed that you could leverage these CRISPR tools, which are most famous, especially then for their genome properties to create powerful diagnostic tests. The moment I saw these papers, I was enamored with the idea, and it was very in line with this thesis that I was working within my head. So I cold-reached out to Jennifer and Janice and Lucas looking to see if they wanted to take this to the next level.
Alejandro: What was that cold email like to capture their attention and get a response?
Trevor Martin: I think, in general, cold emails have a pretty slim probability of response, usually, as anyone in the entrepreneurial space can tell you. It’s all about [8:32]. I think it’s a testament to Jennifer, Janice, and Lucas that we even got a reply because they’re amazingly nice, warm people. Of course, a cold email is not going to be the way you end up working together with someone. It’s just the start. I think what’s really important is that once we got to know each other over the next few months, we spent a lot of time talking together and crafting the vision for where this could go. We realized that we really had an extremely aligned vision, and we also liked working together, and that’s what most important.
Alejandro: For the folks that are listening, what ended up being the business model of the company?
Trevor Martin: Obviously, what kicked everything off was this amazing discovery around leveraging CRISPR for diagnostic tools. That, from day one, has been the focus of the first products we’re building. But also, from early on, we realized that our thesis is even more fundamental than that. When you ask people, “What’s CRISPR?” They’ll say, “It’s a genome tool,” or “It’s a word processor for the genome.” But I think what we realized is that the way that they were able to invent this CRISPR and its diagnostics is by thinking about CRISPR more generally. It’s not that CRISPR’s not amazing. It totally is, and there are amazing things being built in that area, but really more fundamentally, it’s kind of a search engine for biology. I think once you start thinking about it that way, it’s like this tool that you can program so that it can find any sort of DNA and RNA and then interact with it. Then you can do what you want with that interaction, whether that’s editing or whether that’s reading it out as a diagnostic or maybe even other things like leveraging an anti-viral or turning genes on or off. I think that’s a fundamentally powerful concept. We realize that Mammoth’s insight is that CRISPR is this search engine, and by building the next generation of CRISPR proteins, we work with Cas13, Cas14, CasB. They have all these amazing properties that aren’t present in the classic first-gen proteins people work with like Cas9. We can enable these new products like CRISPR-based diagnostics. Even also, products that enable new things in therapeutics and editing and beyond healthcare. That’s what makes Mammoth unique.
Alejandro: Very cool. I know the early days were quite intense. Why were they so intense?
Trevor Martin: All startups are intense all the time, but especially hard at the beginning, and I think one thing that’s especially interesting about startups in biology is that even early on, they can be quite capital-intensive because it’s not enough just to necessarily sit in a basement with a laptop, on a couch, and you don’t actually need any sort of office because there are experiments that need to get done in a laboratory, that still means you have to run experiments. I think something cool that’s happened even in the last couple of years, but especially in the last five years, is that there are now places like San Francisco and Boston, then this whole community and ecosystem that’s developed around almost new work type situations for labs as well – being able to have a single bench, like a broader lab facility for as cheap as possible so you can just start doing experiments and start actually driving for the science and the products without raising tons of capital, which is normally what’s necessary for starting especially biotech. Early on, definitely, a lot of couch hopping and just trying to find any place to sleep, basically. While, at the same time, putting all the effort and financing toward making sure that we can have lots of facilities to drive things forward to get those first few proof points on to move things along. I think that’s an ecosystem that’s going to pay huge dividends for the explosion of startups in the biotech space, in general, that the capital entry requirements for this are being lowered. For example, I think some of our first lab space was in a place called BioCurious, which is an awesome facility where they have high schoolers who are doing really interesting side projects because they’re curious about biology all the way through bio startups that are also working this space, all the way through people have day jobs or who are retired who just love biology and are trying to do interesting things with it. That’s an interesting community to start off in because it gives you a lot of different perspectives.
Alejandro: Got it. In terms of capital, how much capital have your guys raised to date?
Trevor Martin: Mammoth has raised over 75 million into the company across a couple of rounds of funding. That’s exciting because what we can do is translate that capital into these amazing next-generation CRISPR products that we’re beginning to release to the wild.
Alejandro: I understand the way that you got introduced to your very first investor was quite a story, so tell us what happened there.
Trevor Martin: Another thing that people in the startup space will be familiar with are these incubators and accelerators. The very first program we participated in was this thing called [14:19] Ventures at Stanford. It was a great program and tailored for people that are still in academic programs but are thinking about startup ideas and trying to learn about the space. I think something that can be underappreciated by people in this space is that there’s a steep learning curve for, especially Ph.D.s. I’ll just speak from my own experience. There’s a steep learning curve for me coming from a Ph.D. and academic background to understand the lingo, frankly. [14:51]. [Laughter] There are all these terms that eventually you start to take for granted that can actually be a barrier to entry. I think these kinds of a little bit more light touch, like stepping your feet into this space, can pay huge benefits for allowing more non-typical founders to enter the entrepreneurship world. We were in this program, and like any good incubator, accelerator, there’s a demo day at the end. I remember we presented at the demo day. Afterward, we were approached by this individual who was interested in chatting with us more. It was like, “I don’t know if this is their right idea.” Definitely, what we presented that day is not [15:42], like any startup can tell you as well. But I loved it more and more, and help out. It’s funny because some of the other people in the program gave some advice like, “Be wary of this person. They’re wearing a jacket from a big code in your space. You’ve got to watch out.” We were interested in anyone that could help us, frankly, because we needed all the help we could get. We engaged deeply with him, and I think that was an amazing choice because one thing that shocked me about this space, and maybe I’m getting too cynical. There are a lot of people that genuinely just want to help – not expect anything in return but are excited to see big ideas enter into real products. That’s the reward, and I think that’s something that’s also underappreciated about this space. Like a lot of genuinely good people that are trying to help awesome ideas become reality. He introduced us to one of our first investors, James Currier, over at NFX. I remember that was a very classic meeting because we were literally in his garage in his backyard, going through different business ideas. Eventually, we entered the NFX Accelerator after that.
Alejandro: Very cool. You did this accelerator, and then I’m sure that it helped you guys on shaping things further, but what happened next after the accelerator?
Trevor Martin: I think it’s a testament to the technology that we’re working with is like CRISPR and all these diagnostics in particular that very quickly with Janice and Lucas graduating from Berkeley and joining the company fulltime as the CSS and CTO, we did our Series A relatively quickly after that with a really great firm, as well, Mayfield. They had been working with us since the seed, and they had been super helpful, so it was a no-brainer for us to work with them on the Series A as well. That’s where we were able to start scaling the company in terms of building out the scientific teams and starting to make these products more of a reality.
Alejandro: I’ve heard, as well, that during COVID, coronavirus crisis, definitely, your company has been highlighted quite a bit, and it has given you guys quite a push. Tell us how COVID perhaps has accelerated everything.
Trevor Martin: I think accelerated is a good word because it’s not necessarily that there are new trends. I think it’s just maybe accelerated by many years – trends that were already in place but would take a while to reach aggression – things like decent droids, testing, individual ownership of healthcare are trends that were there but now are supercharged essentially. I know there’s a lot of stuff in the space where companies are pivoting and COVID and things like that. One thing that’s unique about Mammoth is that we’ve been working on these types of infectious disease testing since day one of the company, literally. So, obviously, we could have never guessed COVID-19 as a specific target until it became prevalent. We don’t have any crystal ball or anything, but the technology that we’re building and the way we can reprogram it for different targets and infectious disease is exactly why we’ve been building this. I think, now, with this pandemic, hopefully, a) we can play a role in helping to combat it, but b) I think it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to the importance of infectious disease diagnostics and the huge gaps. I think people are surprised, in general, that in 2020, there are still these giant gaps in the diagnostic space. A lot of people just assume that wasn’t the case, but that we could just have great sensitivity and specificity molecular results anywhere. That’s definitely not true. That’s one of the things we’re solving with the products we’re building at Mammoth.
Alejandro: How, for example, when it comes to COVID and diagnostics, can you tell us how exactly you guys are going to be playing a role there?
Trevor Martin: Yeah. We have two major programs. You may have seen the news recently. The NIH awarded us a contract to scale high-throughput testing with our CRISPR technology. What’s exciting there is that, obviously, there are still long turnaround times for molecular testing, which is the gold-standard testing, things like PCR. A lot of that is due to the capacity of labs to run tests. There are a lot of really heroic efforts going on to standup new labs to scale that testing. We have a bit of a different thesis that’s complementary to that, which is what if we can just supercharge the labs that are already out there. There are thousands and thousands of clear labs across the country that are having to turn away tests or delay the results they are giving just because they don’t have the throughput that’s necessary. What we can do with our CRISPR-based technology are two or three [21:23] capacity of these labs. You’ve seen one of the existing equipment that they already have, and I think that’s something that can have a profound effect on access to testing in the United States. That’s one program. The other program that we’re doing jointly with GSK, which is extremely exciting. We’re working since the beginning of the founding of the company is fully decentralized diagnostics. I think something that sets us apart there is what we’re building is true disposable molecular testing. There’s not a device in a cartridge, and you have to remember to keep your device around to use your [22:03] model. It’s envisioning a world where you can go down to your local drugstore and buy a three-pack of these tests that are in the format of something like an electronic pregnancy test, and they give you the same results in terms of quality that you would get from a doctor. I think it’s a testament to the CRISPR technology that we’ve invented and are building that can play these barbell opposite ends of the spectrum, anything from central lab testing, all the way through to the ultimate in decentralized testing.
Alejandro: In this case, you guys have passed recently from the early stage to the growth stage, and now wrapping up very quickly, especially given all the events that are happening. For the people that are listening, when you go from early-stage to growth-stage, and you have to wrap up so quickly like you guys are doing now to keep up with all this craziness that is happening with COVID, how do you go about that because also, you’re operating in a regulated space?
Trevor Martin: Yeah. Definitely, there are a lot of items you chatted about there. I think a key one, though, for any operator or founder is what you focus on can change over time, and I think that’s where one of the greatest skills that I think founders can have and that definitely Janice Lucas and myself are constantly working on is either to learn quickly and also to hire the best people in the world that knew more than us. Especially when you’re in a growth stage, there’s no way, even if you’re really good at reading books or talking to people, that you can be the expert on all the different areas that a high-growth company needs to know. What you can spend time doing is identifying the people that are the world experts in these different areas and recruiting them to join you on this journey. That becomes increasingly important. It’s important in all stages of the company, but especially in high growth, you have to be doing this at a really high cadence as well now. You also need to have systems in place so that it doesn’t always have to be just the founders, for example. Hopefully, at that point, like we’ve done a Mammoth, we have an amazing executive team and a management team, in general, that understand the Mammoth mission and can also make these amazing hires to scale the team. Although like literally every single hire the company makes on the high-growth stage is critical in my opinion, so it’s not just a matter of, “We hired the right executive team.” It needs to be everyone in the company that’s working, especially when you’re in high growth, you just can’t sacrifice it all in terms of the quality of the hiring you’re doing. I think that’s the key thing that we focus on in the high-growth stage.
Alejandro: As you were talking about hiring, now you’re in this rocket ship. How many people do you have now?
Trevor Martin: We’re up to around 60 people.
Alejandro: So, obviously, in this process of hiring all these people, what have you learned about hiring?
Trevor Martin: That’s a good question. I think that it’s especially interesting that in addition to combating the pandemic, we’re living through it, and it’s a very different hiring process as well. Whereas, normally, you’d often have people come in. For many of these interviews, it’s now, like everything else, over Zoom or phone calls. I think an interesting thing with that is – well, it can be good and bad. Obviously, it can be an impediment sometimes to having the more casual interaction that you might have before and after an interview that would a) help the candidates understand the culture of Mammoth, and then b) help you understand how they interact with that culture as it is currently. In general, one thing that can be good about it is, it does allow you to really focus on specific things. When you’re on a Zoom meeting, it lends itself to more structured conversations often. So, I think there it can help you hone in on what are the key things you don’t understand? An example would be the values alignment. How do they think about what’s important to them in their career in terms of what values are in a company that they want to join? That would be one example. More generally, in terms of hiring, we’ve embraced a philosophy here of culture-add over culture-fit. That’s an interesting philosophy in a pandemic because you have a lot of people work from home, or over Zoom, or working remotely, that’s definitely a different culture than what you’d have if everyone was working on site. I think that you can build amazing company cultures in that environment, but it’s a culture app. It’s a new addition to the culture, and if you’re just trying to keep exactly the same culture that’s been there, then you wouldn’t succeed on that when you’re trying to grow in this crazy pandemic environment that we’re in. I think one thing that we’ve embraced that is important to our hiring is increasing our love of the culture as we grow. Not necessarily fossilizing the culture in place, but making the culture even better a year from now than it is today. Hopefully, it is better today than it was a year ago. Those are somethings that we’ve been thinking through a lot about this time.
Alejandro: And when you’re thinking about culture, typically, vision plays a critical role. In this regard, let’s say if you were to go to sleep tonight, and you wake up five years later – a tremendous snooze. You wake up in a world where that vision is fully realized. What does that world look like?
Trevor Martin: It means we will have made huge strides toward improving people’s lives, by fundamentally reading and writing the code of life so that people could go down to their local drugstore and get diagnostic tests for all sorts of infectious diseases and understand their own health. People will be able to have more advanced treatments for a variety of genetic diseases, cancers. And more generally, we’ll be able to interact with biology in much the same way that we interact with computers today. Fundamentally, reading and writing the code of life is making biology something that’s more like software.
Alejandro: Now, you’ve been at it for a while with Mammoth since 2017, where you guys got started. There’s typically one question that I ask the guests that come on the show, and that is if you had the opportunity to have a chat with your younger self, perhaps that Trevor that was still there in graduate school wondering what’s going to be next, how to go about it, and so forth. What would be that one piece of business advice that you would give to your younger self before launching a business and why, knowing what you know now?
Trevor Martin: That’s a great question. I think the key thing that’s most important would definitely be – for anything in life, not just a startup or business is, instead of focusing too much on specific ideas or plans or the blocking and tackling, and all that’s important, I think fundamentally where I find things are most successful is when you work with people that you love working with, whether that’s people at the company, or that’s investors, or that’s advisers, the magic happens when there’s the intersection of an amazing vision, amazing technologies. But also, something people miss is you really have to have that amazing chemistry with the people you’re working with and enjoy working with them and have a huge amount of excitement to get to work with them. I think that’s the key, and that’s what should always be considered first.
Alejandro: Very cool. For the folks that are listening, Trevor, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Trevor Martin: Email is the best: firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can find me on Twitter as well.
Alejandro: Amazing. Well, Trevor, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Trevor Martin: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
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