ERKELEY, Calif. — The question on the test was about CRISPR, but Rachel Haurwitz, then a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, botched it. She had never heard the term.
Less than a decade later, Haurwitz is the CEO of Caribou Biosciences, one of the leading companies pursuing commercial applications of CRISPR, a remarkable gene-editing tool that could help scientists develop new medical treatments and advance other industries.
Haurwitz readily admits she chanced into running a company at the forefront of one of the hottest areas in science. As a graduate student, she happened to land in a lab that was starting to explore CRISPR systems, just a few years before the field exploded.
“It makes me feel incredibly lucky,” Haurwitz said. “I am here because I was in the right place at the right time, with the right people and the right science around me.”
But even if she was the beneficiary of some good fortune, Haurwitz, associates say, deserves ample credit for helping to transform the company from a one-person operation into a growing enterprise with tens of millions of dollars in investment — all as a 31-year-old woman working in an industry still dominated by men.
Disciplined, competitive, and decisive, Haurwitz has been eager and quick to learn new skills as an executive, growing as a leader as the company has advanced, people who know her say.
“She was always cool under pressure — she never got rattled,” said Jennifer Doudna, a Caribou cofounder and the UC Berkeley CRISPR pioneer in whose lab Haurwitz did her PhD research. “I was always struck by that. I think that plays to her strength in the business world.”
Haurwitz acknowledges that much of the excitement around the company is because it is working with CRISPR, considered a biotech darling. That’s helped Caribou avoid the painful slogs that trip up many young biotech companies, though she added, “No doubt that’s coming.”
Haurwitz, who grew up in Austin, Texas, first caught the science bug as a kid, and it was at Harvard where she picked up an interest in RNA, specifically. She then headed to graduate school in 2007, where she spent time in a few labs studying RNA before winding up in Doudna’s in 2008.
It was there she met CRISPR again.
“She pitched to me the project that she wanted me to join,” Haurwitz said. “There was one scientist in the lab working on it, and it was something she called CRISPR.”
At the time, Doudna told her that it appeared to be a bacterial immune system but that people were not sure how it worked. It had some interesting biochemistry, structural biology, and RNA components, and it became Haurwitz’s job to help understand parts of it.
“I felt, well, that sounds wacky. I like wacky, let’s do it,” Haurwitz said.
Blake Wiedenheft, the postdoctoral researcher with whom Haurwitz worked, said Haurwitz jumped into the research, demonstrating her determination and commitment to the project during an experiment that required them to remain in the lab for 24 hours.
“Rachel would seem to get stronger, while I was certainly fading,” said Wiedenheft, now on the faculty at Montana State University.
Of course, scientists in Doudna’s lab and others soon realized much more was going on. Researchers discovered they could harness CRISPR systems to cut and edit DNA in plant, animal, and human cells. As scientists uncovered more about CRISPR, Doudna and Haurwitz started discussing the commercial possibilities.
Eventually in 2011, Doudna and Haurwitz teamed up with Martin Jinek, then a postdoctoral researcher, and James Berger, then a professor at UC Berkeley and now at Johns Hopkins University, to found Caribou.
None of the other three cofounders wanted to leave academia, and Haurwitz had known she wanted to pursue a career outside an academic lab. She became Caribou’s CEO, and started working on the company full time when she finished her PhD in 2012.
(“Caribou” is a combination of Cas, a term meaning CRISPR-associated, and ribo, as in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Haurwitz’s boyfriend at the time came up with it. He’s now her husband.)
Haurwitz’s first office was in a startup incubator in the basement of the same building as Doudna’s lab; it lacked some of the lab equipment she needed and didn’t have cell service. Now with about 30 employees, Caribou has office and lab space here in West Berkeley, just a few blocks from the bay.
The company has raised more than $40 million.
“She really grew into [being CEO],” said Jinek, now on the faculty at the University of Zurich. “At the beginning, she worked at the bench when it was really small. But then she transitioned and did this, I would say, flawlessly.”
Caribou is often described as the nontherapeutic CRISPR company. It helped launch a separate business, Intellia Therapeutics, in 2014 to build treatments with CRISPR, a goal also pursued by companies including Editas Medicine and CRISPR Therapeutics.
Caribou, meanwhile, has been focused on enhancing what CRISPR can do and thinking about how the tool could be adapted for use in agriculture, industrial biosciences, and other fields. It has research partnerships with Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research and DuPont, and recently finalized a deal with the animal genetics company Genus that will allow the company to use Caribou’s technology in some livestock.
Haurwitz said the goal for Caribou is to strike more partnerships and licensing agreements, and possibly create more spinouts like Intellia. But it also intends to pick a few fields to design and build its own products, which Haurwitz said could include human therapeutics.
Another issue that the company will have to deal with is the dispute over key CRISPR patents. Caribou licensed some of its technology from the University of California and its research partners. UC, however, is in a fight with the Cambridge, Mass.-based Broad Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before the US Patent and Trademark Office over which side deserves the intellectual property for that technology.
The uncertainty used to cast a cloud over companies working with CRISPR. But if UC loses, Caribou would likely license technology from another institution. Executives at other companies have echoed that point, and they say investors have come to realize that, as well.
“The last time we were out fundraising, the first five questions, the middle five questions, and the last five questions were always IP, IP, IP,” Haurwitz said. Now, she added, investors see some risk, but “it’s just a question of who’s going to be paying a royalty to whom.”
Despite Caribou’s successes so far, as a young woman leading a company, Haurwitz stands out in the industry. But she said there have only been a few times when she felt disrespected, which she attributed more to her age than her gender.
Still, she seems to take some pride in making others realize they have a gender imbalance.
“I have, multiple times, been in a boardroom with a bunch of VCs who are proudly going through their deck of who their team is … and at some point they’ll be about halfway through the slides and freeze,” Haurwitz said. “Because they realize they’re showing me a slide of [only] men.”