Watch what it actually looks like when CRISPR snips a strand of DNA


The CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique is an important concept to know about in these days of biotech advances, but it can be pretty difficult to visualize properly. Is it really like molecular scissors? Where does the DNA go? Is it a big molecule or a small one? Fortunately a group has created a 3D animation of the process that shows it at the molecular level.

You can watch the animation, created by biologists at Russia’s Skoltech Institute and the Visual Science organization, below or at the latter’s website:

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Wonder how accurate it really is? It got the thumbs-up from none other than Jennifer Doudna, one of the people who helped discover and refine CRISPR techniques:

Molecular animations are an essential way to demystify and explain complex biological systems. Through the use of stunning imagery and attention to detail, Visual Science and Skoltech have captured the dynamic mechanisms of CRISPR-Cas proteins and their use as research tools.

These animations were created as part of a “nonprofit education project,” so if you’d like to license, modify, or otherwise use them for educational purposes, go for it.

Featured Image: Visual Science and Skoltech

While the U.S. waits, China has been CRISPRing human cancer patients since 2015


While the U.S. is just gearing up to the idea of CRISPRing its first humans, China seems to be benefitting from the “move fast and break things”…or cut them with the CRISPR scissors motto.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, China has already gene-edited 86 people using CRISPR-Cas9 since 2015. Unhindered by rules and regulations like the ones we have in America to prevent science experiments gone wrong, Shanghai doctor Wu Shixiu has been using the technique on cancer patients.

In fact, it only took a half hour one afternoon, according to the Journal, for hospital administrators to sign off on Dr. Wu’s plans.

It’s not clear if these experiments worked — though some preliminary reports suggest some of the various trials have had some success. However, this is not the first time China’s used CRISPR on humans — often with disastrous results. Chinese scientists tried unsuccessfully to genetically modify human embryos using CRISPR in 2016 but found at least two-thirds to have genetic mutations and only a fraction of the 28 surviving embryos (out of 86 total tested) contained the replacement genetic material.

At least nine other CRISPR trials have been conducted on humans in China, according to listings in the U.S. National Library of Medicine database. The Journal found at least two other trials had been conducted on humans in China using the technique since 2015.

While some worry this gives China the edge in pioneering CRISPR medical techniques, others urge caution and patience with such a new technology. Both the U.S. and Europe, where the technique was first jointly discovered by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, have implemented conservative regulatory measures and have yet to start human trials.

“It is hard to know what the ideal is between moving quickly and making sure patients are safe,” Dr Carl June, the lead scientist for the CRISPR research team at the University of Pennsylvania, where the first human trials are slated to take place once researchers there can get through several regulatory hurdles, told the Journal.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

While the U.S. waits, China has been CRISPRing human cancer patients since 2015


While the U.S. is just gearing up to the idea of CRISPRing its first humans, China seems to be benefitting from the “move fast and break things”…or cut them with the CRISPR scissors motto.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, China has already gene-edited 86 people using CRISPR-Cas9 since 2015. Unhindered by rules and regulations like the ones we have in America to prevent science experiments gone wrong, Shanghai doctor Wu Shixiu has been using the technique on cancer patients.

In fact, it only took a half hour one afternoon, according to the Journal, for hospital administrators to sign off on Dr. Wu’s plans.

It’s not clear if these experiments worked — though some preliminary reports suggest some of the various trials have had some success. However, this is not the first time China’s used CRISPR on humans — often with disastrous results. Chinese scientists tried unsuccessfully to genetically modify human embryos using CRISPR in 2016 but found at least two-thirds to have genetic mutations and only a fraction of the 28 surviving embryos (out of 86 total tested) contained the replacement genetic material.

At least nine other CRISPR trials have been conducted on humans in China, according to listings in the U.S. National Library of Medicine database. The Journal found at least two other trials had been conducted on humans in China using the technique since 2015.

While some worry this gives China the edge in pioneering CRISPR medical techniques, others urge caution and patience with such a new technology. Both the U.S. and Europe, where the technique was first jointly discovered by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, have implemented conservative regulatory measures and have yet to start human trials.

“It is hard to know what the ideal is between moving quickly and making sure patients are safe,” Dr Carl June, the lead scientist for the CRISPR research team at the University of Pennsylvania, where the first human trials are slated to take place once researchers there can get through several regulatory hurdles, told the Journal.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

Distributed applications, teams, genes and geographies will shape the future of VC in 2018


As the New Year dawns, new opportunities are emerging for savvy venture capitalists in a number of different fields.

From new companies building businesses based on the genome, to businesses built on the blockchain; distributed applications, teams, genes and geographies will shape the future of the venture capital industry.

1 – A,T,G,C

We are moving from a world based upon the 0s and 1s of binary code to a world built from the A, T, G and C nucleotides that comprise DNA base pairs. The first commercial computers were big and expensive. But over time, Moore’s law held true—the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubled every year since their invention, eventually democratizing access to computing power. In biotechnology, the drop in the cost of DNA sequencing is called the Carlson Curve, and it has outpaced Moore’s law. This means that the costs of reading and writing DNA have dropped dramatically and so opportunity abounds. Many of the businesses that will be built on biological data will scale not like biotech therapeutics, but like the software companies that we tech investors are already familiar with. There will be companies storing data in DNA, companies applying AI to drug discovery, and companies developing personalized health recommendations based upon our DNA. And as CRISPR technology matures and we have the ability not just to read and write DNA but to change it, expect to see consumer-facing companies selling all sorts of biosynthesized materials.

2 – Distributed Teams

It’s no secret: starting a company in San Francisco is expensive. One of the biggest expenses? Talent. Glassdoor estimates that entry-level software engineers in San Francisco earn about 15% above the national average, and the gap for top-notch talent is likely to be far greater.

A couple months ago, a founder confided that he was having trouble competing for talent against the likes of Google and Facebook. He was toying with the idea of assembling a distributed team. “But aren’t VCs biased against them?” he wanted to know. Perhaps historically, I said, but I think that distributed teams are the future. Our portfolio company Gitlab has a fully distributed team—their sole “office” is CEO Sid Sijbrandij’s kitchen table. I expect many more companies to follow suit.

3 – Female Founders

According to First Round Capital’s review of their own holdings, female founders’ companies out-performed their male peers’ by 63% in terms of value created for investors. Yet only 5% of all VC-funded firms have women in their leadership team and only 2.7% have a female CEO. We at August Capital have backed incredible teams who also happen to be led by women. We’ll continue to back incredible teams of all stripes in 2018. (And if you want to join one of these rocket ships, check out Kelsi Kamen’s list of female founded startups to join in 2018.)

4 – Searching for Blockchain’s Killer d-App

As this goes to press, CoinMarketCap has the market cap of BTC at $311 billion and ETH at $82 billion. The $393+ billion dollar question then is, how much of this value is attributable to speculation versus the market’s expectation of blockchain’s true utility?

To date, very few people are yet transacting in cryptocurrency, despite the original Bitcoin whitepaper’s stated purpose of creating “a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [that] would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.”

But the potential that they might someday, and that society will become more and more accepting of blockchain’s emergent use cases over time, is tantalizing. Just as email was the web’s killer app, and photo sharing and messaging have been mobile’s, there likely will be a killer application to emerge on blockchain. (For a well-reasoned and surprisingly sober view of crypto, check out Adam Ludwin’s interview on Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s podcast, “Invest Like the Best.”)    

5 – Toronto Rising

When I worked at the White House, one of the things I studied was “clusters” of economic development. A “cluster” is a regional concentration of related industries in a particular location—think about biopharmaceuticals in Boston, or the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley, or the financial services sector in New York. They are places where technology, specialized talent, competing companies, academic institutions and research programs come together and feed on each other synergistically, creating ever more specialized talent and deeper research agendas over time.

Earlier this year, the wonderful Candice Faktor invited me and my partners to the Elevate Toronto Conference. Walking through the MaRS innovation district—a gleaming, government-funded conference center where AI tech and healthcare startups work alongside venture capital firms and research labs—it is clear that Toronto has all the magic puzzle pieces in place to become a deep AI cluster.

6 – And the Midwest is Rising, Too

Steve Case and JD Vance’s Rise of the Rest seed fund is the latest in a string of firms betting on the midwest (see also: Flyover Capital, M25 Group). These are not social impact funds, but rather, they are there to generate top dollar returns. I think the thesis is a strong one. Also helpful: a burn rate that is half that of their SF peers (see point #2).

7 – Keep on Sharing On

We share our homes, our land, and our cars. What are the next most expensive assets tying us down? Our furniture, our clothing… Expect innovations in rental models as we move towards the utopia of a truly variabilized existence.

8 – Vocational Education, At Home and Abroad

As of the last Bureau of Labor Statistics report, there were 6 million job openings in the United States. Job openings have been at or near record high levels since June. On the plus side, this shows that American businesses are ready to hire. But on the down side, employers increasingly report they can’t find skilled workers to fill their open positions. With Congressional budget plans proposing to slash job training, it will fall to the private sector to upskill American talent. And this is not just an American problem. According to the OECD, Latin America as a region has the highest gap between the skills people have and the skills that businesses require.

9 – The Great Unknown

Venture is the perfect job for an infinite learner. One of my favorite things about this job is that each meeting, each introduction could be with someone doing something that I’ve never thought of or heard before. In 2018, I’m excited for entrepreneurs to continue showing me the way.

Featured Image: Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

The tech industry needs to move towards responsible innovation in 2018


For over a decade now, Silicon Valley ideology has been to simultaneously:

Move fast and break things.

Make the world a better place.

Our community — entrepreneurs and investors alike — have had a sense of manifest destiny to move humanity forward with our work. Somewhere along the way however, making the world a better place became more of a punchline than an ethos, and breaking things has become what we are best known for outside Silicon Valley.

To that end, 2017 has been a demoralizing year. While our product innovations have built accessible and affordable content, community and commerce on top of a thriving deregulated and open internet, they have also been weaponized against society by bad actors. Social media became a vector of bullying and propaganda. Algorithms meant to personalize experiences have ended up amplifying bias. Personal data has been compromised in ways that we don’t even fully understand yet.

What’s worse is that as our industry has gained influence and power, we have also become plagued with sexual harassment scandals on top of a persistent lack of diversity. This is not unique to our industry but it adds significantly to perception that we are all bad actors. This is really painful to see especially when I step foot in other parts of the country and describe what I do.

Further, there is another dynamic emerging where Congress is feeling threatened by the growing power of the businesses that we bring to the world. There is a growing bipartisan support for increased regulation of internet companies. The current administration has tussled with tech and investors over the International Entrepreneur Rule and other visa and immigration points. The level playing field we’ve enjoyed with net neutrality is about to disappear under current FCC leadership.

Right now, the relationship between tech and regulators is reading somewhere between strained and adversarial. My worry is that regulation destroys the ability to innovate. We regulated electricity in the early 20th century and it has significantly contributed to climate change. If we regulated technology (and AI is the electricity of the 21st century in many ways), we will create other large issues for ourselves.

Where do we go from here?

First and foremost, we need to recognize that stakes are getting higher and higher with our innovations. We have gone from building software companies that provided efficiency for workers in every industry to completely rethinking how to provide better healthcare, education, financial services, transportation, and even work itself. And with new enabling technologies like blockchain, CRISPR, 3D printing, AR/VR and drones that are right on the horizon, we are going to impact our core values around equality, purpose and work to a much greater degree.

One thing is for sure, we can’t be regressing in our core values as a community and expect to take on such great responsibility. I hope we can celebrate the great founders who are building companies with the right values as much as we have ripped apart the bad actors. The next generation of entrepreneurs and investors needs to be inspired to build on that.

For the last several years, I have encouraged many founders to incorporate two intangibles into their own definition of minimum viable products: awareness for regulation and recognition for social impact. With the benefit of time, it has become obvious to me that this is not enough and that we need to shift our collective mindset from being obsessed with the hacker entrepreneur archetype to one of an empathetic entrepreneur.

We no longer have the luxury of being reactive to the impact technology has on our society and culture. While the hyper-competitive, product-obsessed hackers created the fastest growing companies and generated the best venture capital returns in the past, this will not be the case going forward because there is way more at stake here now and everyone is scrutinizing our work.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Kheng Guan Toh

Taking ownership in 2018

Facebook gets a lot of grief for how they handled the 2017 elections and I know that it has been a demoralizing year for its leadership, despite great success as a business. But they deserve credit for making continued progress for the features they’ve started to test and roll out: using third-party services and AI to flag and downrank fake news; adding one-tap access to information about a publisher; and creating a tool so users can see if they were duped by inflammatory ads before the last US election. It’s a good start.

In 2018, we will see the major players called upon for more transparency in how their algorithms work. This is something that every startup using any amount of machine learning needs to consider building into their products and platforms in a way that informs users how their data is being parsed but without giving away any secret sauce.

Companies like Google and Facebook already produce transparency reports detailing their responses to government requests for user data. Why shouldn’t they do something similar for content integrity? Especially now that we more fully understand the implications when that integrity is not protected.

This growth towards openness and transparency has to come from within Silicon Valley. Regulation isn’t inherently bad but it does tend to encourage developing workarounds versus focusing on true innovation. It is incumbent for us, the technology community, to reach out to the regulators and legislators to help them better understand the wider impact of the things we’re working on. And it’s our responsibility to be transparent and honest with consumers about how we’re using their data and what they can expect from us.

One thing we are great at in Silicon Valley is iterating fast to the best answers. I am hopeful that our community will iterate its core values from hacking and growth to responsible innovation as we continue to rewrite major parts of the economy and society as a whole. Here’s to a responsible 2018!

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin