Imagine an industry poised to burst into existence. The signs are there: the advocates, the tinkerers, the potential business models and user demand, the promising early scientific work yet to be fully exploited. But how you determine whether this is real or all an illusion? How to find out whether an explosion of progress and growth is just about to happen, or whether the seeds of this nascent industry will continue to germinate at low levels of activity for years longer? There is only one useful method: invest a significant amount of money and see how much interest, activity, and follow-on investment it attracts.
This is one of the lines of reasoning behind the most adventurous of venture capital deals, behind research prizes, and behind large philanthropic donations to young fields of research. Today I have in mind Peter Thiel's $3 million matching fund for SENS research, a donation made back in 2006 when the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Foundation were one and the same. The terms of this donation made it a very explicit fishing expedition, a tool for evaluating the state of the longevity science industry that has yet to exist - an industry based on the SENS approach to repair and reversal of aging versus the present mainstream approach of metabolic manipulation to slow aging.
From now until the end of 2009, Mr. Thiel promises to match every Dollar donated to the Methuselah Foundation for SENS research with a 50 cent matching contribution from himself, up to a maximum of $3 Million of matching funds.
Thiel has given us, all of us, a worthy challenge: raise $6 million in 3 years for Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) research and he will match that with a further $3 million. That level of funding would place SENS research on a par with the new Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging. in other words, an organization capable of shaping the application of billions of dollars of medical research funding - and the opinions and work of tens of thousands of the most important scientists in relevant fields - in the years ahead simply by the merits of its existence.
The challenge to raise funding is a proxy for the challenge to prove your cause worthy and likely to succeed. To raise $6 million from the philanthropic community, you need compelling science that stands up to peer review, widespread support, a strong message, and the organizational success gene - the people who build a community to make it work.
The end of 2009 approaches. As of now, in the three years since the Thiel matching fund was set up, a little over half has been matched. Some $3 million in donations and pledges have been raised for SENS research, and $1,472,000 remains of the fund. A lot of progress and networking has happened behind the scenes, both inside and outside the scientific community. A number of Methuselah Foundation volunteers and associates have gone on to found and assist in diverse other efforts, such as Genescient, the LifeStar Institute, and the Biogerontology Research Foundation.
But it's hard to evaluate the value of advocacy and increasing diversity in organizations that carry the SENS ideas; it's easy to evaluate dollars raised. By that standard we as a community are not as far advanced as we thought we were, even though progress and growth is ongoing. The lion's share of all investment and philanthropic donation to longevity science in the past few years has not gone to SENS-like research, but towards metabolic manipulation instead. Consider the Sirtris acquisition, the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories, and so forth. From my perspective, the increase in scientific understanding of metabolism and aging produced by those efforts will have great value in the long term, but I don't see that applied biotechnology that merely slows aging will have any great impact on our longevity.
As I've pointed out numerous times in the past, we in middle age today only get one shot at a twenty year development cycle for longevity-enhancing medical technology. If by 2030 all that has been achieved is a reliable slowing of aging, then we will benefit very little from that. The only way to significantly enhance healthy life expectancy in the old is to aim for rejuvenation: repair and restoration, not slowing down the accumulation of damage.
So SENS and SENS-like ideals for longevity science are not where we'd like to be. Growth is slower, and fundraising has not hit the heights we'd like. A large matching fund looks likely to expire only half-used, and not through any lack of effort on the part of fundraisers. Take five minutes to mope, and then think about what we can do to change this state of affairs.