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Spotlight in which a DNA model is projected as a hologram inside of a transparent, square glass bowl.

In late 2012, French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier approached a handful of American scientists about starting a company, a Crispr company. They included UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, George Church at Harvard University, and his former postdoc Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute—the brightest stars in the then-tiny field of Crispr research. Back then barely 100 papers had been published on the little-known guided DNA-cutting system. It certainly hadn’t attracted any money. But Charpentier thought that was about to change, and to simplify the process of intellectual property, she suggested the scientists team up.

It was a noble idea. But it wasn’t to be. Over the next year, as the science got stronger and VCs came sniffing, any hope of unity withered up and washed away, carried on a billion-dollar tide of investment. In the end, Crispr’s leading luminaries formed three companies—Caribou Biosciences, Editas Medicine, and Crispr Therapeutics—to take what they had done in their labs and use it to cure human disease. For nearly five years the “big three’ Crispr biotechs have been promising precise gene...