San Antonio — [Corrected 10/3/16, 5 p.m.] For a researcher trying to turn their science into a business, sometimes the big issues—such as perfecting an intricate scientific process like gene editing—feels like a less daunting task than what might seem to be smaller stuff, like finding an attorney to help incorporate a business, says Rachel Haurwitz, the president, CEO, and co-founder of Caribou Biosciences.
Horowitz credits the formation of Caribou to a organization operated by three University of California schools, which provides resources to academic researchers who are trying to turn their work into startups. That includes pro bono legal work for incorporating a company, aid with creating a corporate bank account, and workshops on applying for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, among other resources. Called Startup in a Box, the program has worked with dozens of other companies, such as San Francisco-based 3Scan, and sparked multiple spin-offs. [Corrected to clarify that Startup in a Box does not classify itself as an incubator. It is part of QB3, an organization operated by the UC schools that also runs incubator programs.]
After the training program, Haurwitz applied for and received a $150,000 SBIR grant in 2012 for Caribou, which is based in Berkeley, CA. Founded only a year earlier, Haurwitz says she had little luck pitching venture capital on Caribou’s gene editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, a method of cutting faulty genes out of the genome and potentially replacing them with improved ones. At the time, the technology that was still in its infancy, but is far more famous today thanks companies like Caribou and Editas Medicine. (Part of the fame is based in an ongoing patent dispute about who has rights to the technology, as Xconomy has detailed.)
“I guarantee you that I would not have gotten the grant (without Startup in a Box),” Haurwitz told a group of researchers and students at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio last night.
The grant and training she received that helped her get it was helpful because venture capital wasn’t open to the technology, she says. “At the time, it was so early, most investors we talked to said no, I don’t think it’s going to work like that,” Haurwitz says.
The health science center invited an incubator proponent like Haurwitz to San Antonio to speak to the benefits of those programs largely because it is trying create one of its own. The health science center’s office of technology commercialization has hired a consultant to help it figure out how to do so, says John Gebhard, the senior executive director of the office.
“She embodies to a T the academic entrepreneur,” Gebhard said about why he asked Haurwitz to speak. “At the health science center, that incubator part resonated with us. We are trying to not create a new ecosystem, but to invigorate the ecosystem. It exists, it just needs to be cultivated.”
It also helps that Haurwitz has a unique story. At age 31, she was named this year to Fortune’s list of “40 under 40,” a group of influential young people in business. (That followed being named to Forbes magazine’s list of 30 entrepreneurs under 30 previously.) She co-founded Caribou with UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna while she was still finishing her dissertation.
The SBIR grant that Caribou received in 2012, and another grant in 2013, helped push the company forward long enough for Haurwitz and her founding team to decide to focus the company’s strategy on licensing and partnerships, at least in the early goings, instead of traditional venture capital. Caribou agreed to terms on a licensing deal with St. Louis-based Sage Labs in 2013, and a year later launched a business called Intellia Therapeutics in 2014 with Atlas Ventures.
Intellia (NASDAQ: NTLA) received a license to develop human gene and cell therapies with Caribou’s technology. The Cambridge, MA-based company raised $108 million in an initial public offering this year.
Caribou is moving forward with other partnerships, such as with DuPont in agricultural biotech, Novartis on drug screening, and UK-based Genus on ridding pigs of a disease that results in a serious infection. The company has also raised venture capital: an $11 million Series A last year and a $30 million Series B in May. Novartis, DuPont, and Genus all invested in the company, along with other institutional and venture investors.
“We were able to find people who we genuinely liked, people who were able to support our business,” Haurwitz says.