Laura Deming runs the Longevity Fund, which was arguably the first of the current small group of venture funds focused on supporting companies that commercialize implementations of aging research, depending on how we want to classify the incubator activities of the Methuselah Foundation over the past decade. The fund invested in Unity Biotechnology, so I have to imagine it will do fairly well as a result: senolytic therapies such as those under development at Unity Biotechnology are ultimately going to be a bigger market than just about anything else that presently exists in the medical community. Every human much over the age of 40 is a potential customer at some price point.
Much of Deming's work in the venture community these past years has been behind the scenes, with little public advocacy, and I think this a pity as she usually has interesting things to say on the matter. Progress in growing this community, its funding, and its progress, requires more of the people involved to at least once in a while step up and talk in public about the support they are providing to research and development in the field of longevity science. While we can't all be publicity engines like Aubrey de Grey, or Michael West, or the like, I think there are many missed opportunities to do good at little cost by speaking out.
TC: What did you study at MIT?
LD: I majored in physics actually, but I continued to work in a couple of labs, including [one overseen by] Lenny Guarente [a biologist known for his research on life span extension]. It was a lot of fun. I thought I'd be a scientist, but a grad student familiar with the Thiel fellowship told me I should apply and I did. It's funny, one of the directors of the [Thiel] program told me recently that he thought I'd fail, even though he was very supportive. After we closed the first fund, he was like, "I never thought that would work out."
LD: In part because not long ago, if you talked with most VCs about aging, they didn't think there was anything there. I think aging is such a young science, they hadn't heard about it. Meanwhile, I care a lot about it, and though we don't know if it'll work or not, it's not unlike [biotech companies trying to tackle] cancer in that way, and if you believe in cancer companies, you should also care about aging companies.
TC: How much did you raise for that first fund?
LD: A grand total of $4 million, and I was very proud of this. To be honest, I'd assumed $100,000 was enough to build a fund until I arrived in San Francisco and realized it was really enough to live on for two years. When I started fundraising, I was 17 - too young to legally sign contracts. I'd never managed money before. But I could talk to people about the science and got them on board with that. In the end, we had great anchor investors come together, and we invested in five companies that kind of proved out the strategy.
TC: One of your portfolio companies is Unity Biotechnology, a company that's trying to reverse aging through therapeutics. Didn't it just raise a giant Series B round this week?
TC: Given the amounts involved, is the plan to form special purpose vehicles, or SPVs, around your break-out winners?
LD: We like to help LPs follow on, so we look to do that in whatever way makes sense for both parties. With Unity, we put in money as early as possible because Ned Davis, who runs the company, is amazing and we thought its aging thesis would succeed.
TC: Do you think your work will be harder, given that investors seem to be paying much more attention to aging suddenly?
LD: No. With our first fund, we spent up to six months with each deal, tracking the company before it was even raising. It's something LPs really value from us; they know when they invest in something that they don't need to re-do the diligence, that we've already looked at a bunch of stuff and we know this is the best possible investment in [a particular vertical]. Earlier, our biggest challenge was getting other investors on board and convincing them that aging has become a place to play. Now that's a non-issue, which is great. Our job is to help the companies get other investors on board, so it's wonderful to see excitement in the space begin to build.
What are some of the other newer funds in this space? Deep Knowledge Ventures started to invest a while back, such as in Insilico Medicine. They are a part of the international community connected to the Biogerontology Research Foundation. I wouldn't call them a longevity-focused fund per se, but the principals have a strong interest in this field. Apollo Ventures on the other hand is very definitely branded as a fund involved in longevity science and interested in treating aging as a medical condition. They even launched an online magazine, Geroscience, to help propagate their point of view. This sort of advocacy for the field is one of the most cost-effective activities that venture funds can undertake. It costs them a tiny fraction of the funds they devote to their investments, and helps to expand the marketplace. When all is said and done, attention and understanding are the real goals; the ability to pull in funding is derived from those items.
Kizoo Ventures is run by Michael Greve, one of the present backers of the SENS Research Foundation agenda. The venture fund follows the Forever Healthy Foundation now in investing in companies relevant to the SENS vision of rejuvenation biotechnologies capable of repairing the damage that causes aging. Today that means senolytic therapies, and tomorrow those will be joined by other methods of damage repair such as cross-link breaking and allotopic expression of mitochondrial DNA.
Just recently, another vocal high net worth investor launched the Juvenescence fund. It remains to be seen where exactly they will support the field, but it can't hurt to have the involvement of more businesspeople who see the worth of talking up their positions. Money doesn't grow on trees, even in times like these when the central banks are printing more than the elite can easily use. Raising funding for rejuvenation biotechnology development requires the development of a networked and interested investment community at every level, from seed funding through to raising tens of millions for the final commercial development of a therapy. Given that we're all aging, it is in everyone's interest to help those communities come into being. That very definitely means talking about the field, and the more the better.