One Wealthy Zealot Would Make a 20 Year Difference

Something to think about: outstanding success for the SENS Foundation and its mission would look something like the assured availability of $100-300 million for research and development. That much money tends to build the successes and cachet needed to attract more of the same. To get to this point from where the Foundation stands now (a yearly budget around $1 million for the SENS Foundation, and an unknown but likely smaller level of unaffiliated funding for the same goals) might take twenty years of steady growth and success, with the end result being a substantial persuasion and conversion of the present research and funding culture for medical development. That wouldn't mean that the SENS Foundation would be a $100 million giant, or even necessarily still exist, but it would give rise to a diverse and competitive community that inherits the founders' values and goals - to defeat aging by building rejuvenation biotechnology more or less as presently envisaged in the SENS platform.

So what happens if a fellow with a net worth of $100-300 million becomes a zealot for the cause, overnight perhaps, and decides to put his net worth behind the SENS cause because without life and health, what is money? I use the world zealot in the best possible way here: someone who values the cause greatly enough to spend more time and money than most other people consider reasonable - but in this case is entirely justified, given the present harms caused by aging. But what happens if the community acquires such a zealot? To my eyes it looks like we would gain two decades of headway, and projects that would otherwise languish for twenty years would commence immediately. In a pattern of growth that is limited only by the level of investment - which is exactly where rejuvenation biotechnology is today - everything in the timing hinges on when the money arrives.

(It's a little more complex than this, of course, given that biotechnology is rapidly improving and costs for any given life science research project will fall rapidly over time - but you get the picture. Early money is still very much better than waiting).

The interesting question is why this doesn't happen: there are a fair number of very wealthy people in the world, and logic suggests that the best possible use for much those resources from their individual perspectives would to buy more life - since we are now in an age in which it is possible to make a run at buying significantly more life. What is wealth to the sick or the dead when it comes to it? But I don't think that this is a "why don't more people support engineered longevity?" sort of a question. My suspicion is that it is not just longevity science that looks in vain for wealthy zealots, but that in general any grand cause that people can feel very strongly about also lacks wealthy zealots. It seems to me that there is in fact little overlap between the small population of zealots for a cause, people willing to devote their working life and significant resources to a grand project, and the small population of very wealthy people, those with a net worth of $100 million and up.

We can speculate as to why this might be. For example, I might try to argue that the sort of person who can successfully run the long and unlikely process of becoming very wealthy is the sort of person who doesn't think about what they can do with money. They are not doing what they do for money, and the process is their passion. Someone who was a zealot for a cause would have stepped off that process long before reaching the possibility of attaining a very high net worth. Having a mere seven figure net worth for most people enters the territory of being able to prioritize volunteering over working, or funding a small mission in their favored charity. The temptation to break off and work on doing good rather than continually doubling down and doubling down on the process is ever there.

Or to put it another way, the passion for the process that will make a person wealthy takes up the much the same mental space as the passion for a cause: there are only so many hours in the day, and only so much attention that a person can give to any one set of information. So you are unlikely to see a person who has (a) accomplished the necessary devotion to work and process for a shot at becoming very wealthy, but also (b) put in the necessary work and process to become a zealot.

Or to put it yet another way, neither becoming exceedingly wealthy nor becoming a zealot are things that just happen one day out of the blue. They are each a fair way down their own different paths of effort, realization, and specialization.

This sort of thinking is the flip side of considering persuasion, high net worth philanthropy, and fundraising in general. It suggests that persuasion is exactly necessary because, for one, the odds of a funding source emerging from the pool of already-persuaded-and-fully-into-it supporters is pretty remote. Secondly, the odds are equally low that any particular high net worth individual or organization will suddenly get the picture of their own accord and begin pouring out money like water. These are different worlds, different views, different life courses that touch at few points - so people must set out to deliberately try to bring them together.


Completely agree with this... often wonder if there's greater value in devoting time to fundraising / "focused persuasion" towards the 1% than working directly towards progressing longevity-related goals.

... always appreciate your blog. Thanks for the great posts.

Posted by: S at February 10th, 2012 8:17 PM

Perhaps an interesting question to pose to Aubrey in an interview would be: "Have you witnessed any increased interest in SENS among wealthy individuals over the course of the year?" That might not be the best way to phrase such a question, and indeed he might not answer the query regardless of how it is phrased. However, I think his answer (if he chose to give one) would provide us with some insight on the issue. I would assume that any spike in interest from that group would correlate to a higher probability that one of them would donate heavily to SENS.

Of course, Aubrey might have already answered this question in one of his recent, publicly available interviews. If that is the case, I would love to get a link to it.

Posted by: Anthony at February 10th, 2012 8:38 PM

I suspect image-consciousness plays a role too. Any individual who made a $10,000,000+ donation to SENS or rejuvenation biotechnology more generally would be attacked in the press for all the familiar reasons. "So-and-so is a selfish and disgusting person who cares more about an insignificant chance of prolonging his own existence than he does about the children or the poor." Then the Malthusians and anti-human "environmentalists" would chime in that "So-and-so is threatening to doom the Earth and the future. So-and-so has become so arrogant from his wealth that he thinks he is God."

Basically every mouthpiece of mainstream media would be making a veiled declaration of one of those sentiments.

Posted by: Jose at February 10th, 2012 10:22 PM

I completely concur with Jose. He has hit the nail squarely on the head. Any philanthropist/government/charity who publically donated to SENS (in a game changing sense) would be slaughtered by the mainstream media. You can just see the waves of negative PR - "playing at God", "selfish", "obscene narcissist", "what about the poor?", etc, etc, etc.
This is why I am becoming more and more convinced that SENS can only be done in stealth mode. TOTAL RADIO SILENCE until the technology is ready and, ONLY THEN, dump it into the lap of the Authorities. Or, better still, commercialise it in a friendly LDC. Only a "Fait Accompli" will allow the Army of the Enemies of Reason (AER) to be circumvented.
The awful truth? WE ARE ON OUR OWN and nobody in the media, academy, government or industry will help us. There are just too many vested interests. Just look at the efforts of the churches in the US to get ESC banned. They fought it for 10 years. They have been fighting contraception for GENERATIONS. This is what we are up against.
I know this must sound very negative but, hey, nobody helped Wilbur and Orville.

Fuck 'em!

Please see my earlier posts.

Posted by: Tom C at February 11th, 2012 12:21 AM

There is nothing stopping a wealthy person from making said donation anonymously.

Posted by: Vasper85 at February 11th, 2012 7:22 AM

It is a mystery. It's not as if Aubrey has not spoken before and personally to many high net-worth people. He's put himself out there in front of the tech elite, giving the same talk at a frenetic pace, in part in order to secure a major donation.

I suspect Jose's point is part of the explanation. Reputation in a society still caught in a pro-death trance militates against funding SENS. Reputation acts against even advocating on behalf of anti-aging research. But the wealthier you are, the more you stand to lose from taking what appears to be a radical stance in a very status quo oriented society.

Another explanation is that many of these wealthy individuals may believe that regardless of the ultimate prospects and desirability of life extension therapies, they will not arrive in time for them. Aubrey's argument that many elderly people in fact have an extraordinary callousness over the young being able to live longer than them holds true here.

Finally, giving to SENS may seem like too great of a gamble. But this is odd - because as you say, what other prospect is there for exchanging money for a life beyond the natural life span?

Posted by: Ranjit Suresh at February 11th, 2012 9:06 AM

@Vasper85: the first $1 million donation to the Methuselah Foundation - for the Mprize - was made completely anonymously. To this day, no-one knows who the donor is.

Posted by: Reason at February 11th, 2012 10:15 AM

"Any philanthropist/government/charity who publically donated to SENS (in a game changing sense) would be slaughtered by the mainstream media"

Not true, what about Peter Thiel , then ?

They just simple don't believe it's possible, not yet, like most people. We can't even cure flu, so try to explain them that aging will be tractable in 20/25 years, good luck !

Posted by: P.A.T at February 11th, 2012 12:36 PM

"So what happens if a fellow with a net worth of $100-300 million becomes a zealot for the cause, overnight perhaps, and decides to put his net worth behind the SENS cause because without life and health, what is money?"

[ So what happens if a woman with a net worth of $100-300 million becomes a zealot for the cause, overnight perhaps, and decides to put her net worth behind the SENS cause because without life and health, what is money? ]

Posted by: Chelsey Owens at February 11th, 2012 7:31 PM

I think most people just don't think it can be done, and that extends to billionaires. Even if they're interested in the idea and think it holds potential, to really change the game they'd have to donate an extraordinary amount. These people didn't get rich by throwing money away on ideas that could fail. SENS Foundation haven't demonstrated any success at reversing aging yet, so like it or not they're a big gamble at this stage.

Reputation plays a part certainly, I'm sure in some cases subconsciously. If the pro aging trance didn't hold sway with almost everyone then there would be considerable pressure placed on billionaires (and everyone else) to chip in. But as is, you're asking people to be a renegade. Real renegades are rare. Rarer than billionaires unfortunately.

Rest assured, if I'm ever a billionaire I'll get involved. Could take some time though, which is a shame.

The real question is, how long will it take for SENSF to demonstrate Robust Mouse Rejuvenation with inadequate funding? Aubrey's been saying it's ten years away for about six years now, but the caveat is always that this will require 100 million dollars per year. How long will it take with only a million? And will we all be dead by then?

Posted by: Ben at February 11th, 2012 8:08 PM

"These people didn't get rich by throwing money away on ideas that could fail." That's pretty much the essence of entrepreneurship and the exact means by which most of these people *did* get rich.

As for the funding problem, there's hope in the fact that the cost of biomedical research is consistently declining due to improvements in technology. The lab-on-a-chip is ever growing in capability and availability. There are exciting prospects such as DNA sequencing through nanopores that could radically reduce costs.

SENS will also utilize general methods that are being developed for other purposes, including gene delivery and stem-cell technology. It's much easier to create a new application of existing methods than to create and refine the methods oneself.

What if these manifest trends continue, but there's still no progress toward the SENS approach? Eventually, the potential for a "grey market" solution would arise, bypassing the remaining costs. Let's look at the costs of research that don't fall into the parts and labour categories:

*Regulatory and institutional costs such as (highly politicized) ethical review and oversight for the humane care of experimental animals, approval of clinical trials, etc.

*Royalty costs for the utilization of patented methods

There's a good SF story buried in all this. Imagine a shadowy religious cult that acts as a front group for individuals who want to self-experiment using biotechnology. Though unwarrantable in the current climate, I could imagine situations 25 or so years from now in which I have an epiphany and realize the necessity of leading worship of the Great Old Ones through certain researches.

Posted by: Jose at February 12th, 2012 2:20 AM

The reason we don't see any wealthy zealots as you describe is because people actually support death. When I bring up the topic of immortality, people immediately react against it. We have been programmed.

Posted by: Jonatan at February 12th, 2012 9:13 AM

"That's pretty much the essence of entrepreneurship and the exact means by which most of these people *did* get rich."

I take your point, but I disagree. It's a question of degree. Can you show me someone who threw 100 mil at a problem straight off the bat with zero proof of concept? The kinds of people we're talking about are canny investors, not financially reckless lunatics.

Peter Thiel is obviously a big believer in the value of SENS. He has a lot of money, but for now is funding SENSF through donations that are small compared to what where talking about here. He could give more, but why would he when the foundation is yet to demonstrate that they can achieve any kind of success?

Of course, I would think SENS Foundation understand all this better than anyone. Their whole initiative is about demonstrating results in mice. They know the likelihood of any significant change in public consciousness happening before then is small, so that's where their efforts are focused.

Posted by: Ben at February 12th, 2012 3:04 PM

I'll second what Jonatan said: when you bring up the topic of reversing aging, people look at you like a giant bird dropping just fell on your head. But these are ordinary people; I do find it surprising that at least some super-rich people, who should have more access to better information and advice, don't jump into the fray here. And actually I do see some evidence lately that the ice may be breaking. There's a seminar series here on "living beyond 100" that is packing the house every week. Of course 100 is just a random number, but clearly it's getting people to start thinking.

Posted by: Will Nelson at February 13th, 2012 8:18 AM

Hey what about Zuckerberg? He's young and can spare it I guess. I personally hate facebook, but hey if he can make out a nice lump some to SENS, it would be nice. But then again he's probably a tightwad, so whatever.

Posted by: VV5 at February 13th, 2012 4:35 PM

I find most people are pretty receptive to the idea of ending aging. I'm not terribly persuasive, either (though I'm fairly passionate about the idea). I suspect the wealthy folks are just not brought into contact with enough people to accept this as a viable investment. And in regards to the old being callous about the young outliving them, the focus should be on the *young* millionaires and billionaires with the imagination and enthusiasm to fund this research.

Posted by: MJ at February 13th, 2012 5:09 PM

Donation always has its limit.
What we should do is make a trade with the wealthy people.

For example, target a wealthy person and do some diagnosis.
Tell the person about all the therapies, the degree of their effectiveness and costs. Also mention therapies that does not exist yet. If the wealthy person can benefit a lot from these potential therapies for life extension, then the person would fund such research without much hesistation. Reporting how the money is being spent is also very important to give trust to the funder

Posted by: Philip Lee at February 14th, 2012 4:22 PM

"Hey what about Zuckerberg? He's young and can spare it I guess. I personally hate facebook, but hey if he can make out a nice lump some to SENS, it would be nice. But then again he's probably a tightwad, so whatever."

Zuckerberg donated 100mi to Newark schools in 2010. He might be many things, but certainly not a tightwad.

Posted by: BP at May 10th, 2012 11:30 PM

Excellent discussion.

All successful entrepreneurs have narcissistic traits. A SENS-like approach to aging reversal would be attractive to them since they could reap the benefits personally. As Phillip said, focus on one ailing billionaire and cure him.

Set up shop on a country with relaxed regulations and start offering low-level therapies (like stem cells for joint repair) for the very rich while advancing research in more progressive. While you cure them (and take money from them), show them the future therapies that could be developed with proper funding.

The thing is, the money for this quest will never come from the government or from companies (unless it's one created by one of us). A million a year is a ridicule amount of funding. If donations are not coming, then the focus should be on earning money via therapies or related stuff.

(PS: If Ray Kurzweil is apparently on board, why hasn't he gathered support from his billionaire friends?)

Posted by: PedroC. at May 22nd, 2012 1:19 PM
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