Ben Lamm and George Church (Courtesy: Colossal)

Innovation

Conversation With: The Man Who Wants to Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth

Colossal's Ben Lamm says the company is developing a Dallas lab to help create an artificial womb.

Ben Lamm spent his childhood traveling the world, developing a love for nature and the biodiversity it has to offer. Unfortunately, studies say that by 2050, half of the Earth’s biodiversity could be gone, but he is on a mission to put a dent in that worrying trend with his newest company, Colossal. 

Lamm’s previous ventures have seen him on the cutting edge of everything from mobile gaming and artificial chatbots to carbon capture and space technology. He is now marrying his passion for the environment with his ability to leverage innovation. “A lot of times I feel in a weird way that I’m from the future, and there’s this need to do everything I can to try to advance ideas that I have,” he says. “So I can get us to this world we were promised.”

Colossal’s plan is an ambitious one. Pairing woolly mammoth DNA preserved from Siberian permafrost with that of an Asian elephant and growing the animal in a combination of artificial and African elephant wombs. The company hopes to produce its first set of calves in four to six years. The hope is that these animals will be set loose on the tundra, helping the landscape return to its former state, increasing plant life and ground cover that could soak up carbon dioxide that is causing climate change, which will also prevent the methane that is stored under the Arctic from releasing into the atmosphere.

Lamm partnered up with renowned Harvard geneticist George Church, who has long discussed the benefits of bringing back the mammoth and identified the DNA strand that they hope can be spliced with the elephant. He left artificial intelligence company Hypergiant to spend most of his time on Colossal. He sat down with D CEO to discuss his transition and what it has been like to marry a passion with a profession. 

How does your transition to Colossal connect with the rest of your career?

LAMM: “My entire career, I’ve focused on doing two things: First is working with much smarter people than me, which I’ve been fortunate to do, and secondly, I’ve been fascinated with synthetic biology for quite some time. I’m also passionate about climate change, loss of species, and species preservation. At Hypergiant, we worked on robotic photobioreactors to leverage AI for higher carbon sequestering, so that was a big passion project for me.”

You have had some quick success in getting investors to buy in. Are they all passionate about climate change, or are there potential returns on their investment in a more tangible sense?

LAMM: “From a business perspective, we make the analogy to the Apollo program. Look at all the technology that came out of Apollo. I am directionally challenged, and I can’t get anywhere without GPS, which was one of those incredible innovative technologies that came out of the Apollo program.

“George and his lab have developed technologies that can be helpful for not just extinction and species preservation. I think they can also be applicable to broader industries as well. If you look at artificial wombs or multiplex editing, those are massively disruptive tools that can be leveraged for animal lab work, species conservation, or human healthcare. There is a massive application in a range of these technologies that’s available.”

How has it been working with George Church?

LAMM: “We have a very similar mindset, and he has built incredible technologies that have advanced the world of genomics and helped usher in the promises of what we can do. We’re just at the starting point of this synthetic biology revolution. After our first call, I didn’t sleep that night. A couple of weeks later, I was in the lab, and I missed all my calls because we went down the rabbit hole. I think we knew after that first meeting; we were kindred spirits on this journey.”

Why target the Arctic and woolly mammoth?

LAMM: “People are now talking about carbon sequestering and thinking about methane suppression. Many people are starting to understand the loss of human life and the economic impact of climate change, so I’m thankful and grateful that that’s happening. I don’t think enough people are talking about a loss of biodiversity.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to climate change except changing hearts and minds behaviors on a global scale. I think it’s going to be a tapestry of technologies to solve these problems. I think that the Arctic is an area that needs to be focused on from a methane suppression and carbon sequestration perspective, and I don’t think there’s enough work being done. There’s so much more carbon and methane stored under the Arctic than there is anywhere else on Earth. that needs to be a focus.”

What part of the company is based in Dallas?

LAMM: “We are distributed between Boston, Dallas, and Austin. A lot of core software works are happening in Austin, and some of that software work is in Dallas. We’re in the process of building out a lab here in Dallas right now. Right now, artificial womb development is a combination of Boston and Dallas, and some hardware and medical devices are here in Dallas.

“In addition to that, secondary biology is happening here. As we look at the application of some of the work for the mammoth as it applies to other species, that’s happening here right now. Corporate headquarters, the hardware side of the artificial womb, and secondary biology for additional species work are all here.”

What is it like undertaking an endeavor when there are so many unknowns?

LAMM: “I don’t know where else to live. I feel like I live in the future, but much of the science is solved. The biggest thing is our critical engineering challenges, and I am good at bringing in teams that are much smarter than me to achieve those. The goal isn’t just to bring back mammoths and build functional elephants that are cold tolerant in the Arctic. That’s not the goal. The goal is that plus successful rewilding. We’re still doing a lot of climate modeling, but we’re assuming it’s 500 to a couple of thousand mammoths in the first tranche. That’s a supply chain issue. That’s a production issue. Those are logistical issues. Those are artificial womb issues. Those are big engineering issues. The good news about what we’re doing here is that now we’re just applying that science. How do you do it faster? How do you do it more efficiently? How do you do it at scale? Those are engineering problems.”

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