Colossal Biosciences, the Dallas-based de-extinction company that’s pursuing projects to bring back species like woolly mammoths and Tasmanian tigers, is setting its sights on another extinct animal: the dodo bird.
The firm landed a $150 million investment to back the ambitious endeavor. Nearly a dozen investors chipped in, including Dallas private equity financier and adventurer Victor Vescovo, CIA-backed In-Q-Tel and the United States Innovative Technology Fund led by billionaire Thomas Tull.
Others putting up money are Breyer Capital, Bob Nelsen, Animal Capital, Animoca Brands, Peak 6, BOLD Capital and Jazz Ventures.
“I feel like investors are excited about supporting us because we have a company that has obviously shown that it can create a lot of value, but it can also make a big impact on conservation in the world,” said Ben Lamm, CEO and co-founder of Colossal Biosciences.
A person familiar with the company said the latest funding round gives the startup a valuation of about $1.5 billion, Bloomberg News reported.
Colossal will launch an Avian Genomics Group to pursue the de-extinction of the dodo bird. Dodos lived on the Indian island of Mauritius and weighed about 50 pounds, according to Discover magazine.
The 3-foot-tall flightless birds became extinct in 1662.
Birds can’t be cloned because of a technical barrier — scientists don’t have access to the eggs in birds at the right time to be able to use them for cloning, said Beth Shapiro, Colossal scientific advisory board member and lead paleogeneticist.
Shapiro’s research team at the University of California at Santa Cruz earned attention last year for its discovery of what was described as a “fantastic specimen” of dodo DNA that comprised the last clue needed to complete the bird’s genome.
“If we can lift the dodo up as a target for bringing back, for potentially coming up with strategies that help us believe that we’re correcting the wrongs that our ancestors actually did, then we can get more people to be excited about these technologies, and about extinctions in general,” said Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist at UC Santa Cruz.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the world’s bird population has declined by more than 3 billion in the last 50 years. The IUCN Red List also now categorizes more than 400 bird species as either extinct, extinct in the wild or critically endangered.
“We look for projects that can be interesting and iconic and where we can also have a reason to build additional technologies,” Lamm said.
Scientists have made progress on the woolly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger, otherwise known as the Thylacine.
The team working on bringing back the woolly mammoth includes 40 scientists in three laboratories who are evaluating computational biology, cell and genome engineering, stem cell biology, embryology, protein engineering and assisted reproductive technologies.
It has sequenced and publicized genomes for the African and Asian elephant, among other genetic discoveries. The company had planned to use CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, to alter the genes of Asian elephants, the closest genetic relative to the extinct woolly mammoth. Scientists identified more than 60 genes needed to create a functional woolly mammoth.
The Thylacine team consists of 30 scientists who became the first to derive pluripotent stem cells, or cells that self-renew, in dunnarts, a narrow-footed marsupial, among other early stage discoveries.
In September, Colossal created a spinoff firm, Form Bio, that’s focusing on computational life sciences. Form Bio’s technology can be used for more than de-extinction practices, such as drug discovery, gene and cell therapy, manufacturing efficiency and academic research.
Colossal previously raised $75 million since its launch in 2021, according to tracking site Crunchbase. It also collected an undisclosed investment from In-Q-Tel last year.
Lamm, who co-founded Colossal with Harvard University geneticist George Church, believes Colossal’s moonshot-level goal gives the company a competitive edge in recruiting people who would rather research vanished beasts than less exotic projects.
“You can work on yeast or you can work on bringing back an extinct species,” he said.
For some investors, a live dodo is less important than the scientific breakthroughs generated in the push for de-extinction.
“Along the lines of being able to bring a species back, we’re going to learn things we can’t learn in a wet lab,” said Tull, a tech investor who produced the movie Jurassic World and made money investing in scrubs company Figs. “When you’re doing big things like this, who knows what you’re going to discover along the way.”
Another backer, Jim Breyer, said his venture firm is satisfied with Colossal’s progress.
“They’re solving complex problems,” said Breyer, an early backer of Facebook who invests in Colossal through his firm Breyer Capital. “Long-term, there will be significant revenue opportunities around sustainability, conservation, and re-wilding.”
Others are skeptical about the potential investment return.
“I think the de-extinction angle might hold promise for scientific discovery, but probably very hard for venture in terms of market, cost and speed to scale,” said Helen Liang, managing partner of Founders X Ventures. “The bigger question is what business values could be unlocked and the justification on the cost of capital in doing that.”
Bloomberg News contributed to this story.