When Will the $100 Million Donations Start to Arrive for Rejuvenation Research?

Wealth does not grant vision, and arguably the process of becoming extraordinarily wealthy requires a person who does not devote a great deal of interest and effort to anything beyond running that process. Usually this involves a great deal of work, a great deal of learning, a great deal of personal growth. But if you happen to also be someone who wants to change the world in ways that require a great deal of money - such as through medical research, for example - then you probably won't get much past the level of multi-millionaire. You'll choose to start investing in doing good rather than doubling down on the money-making road.

I think that this goes some way towards explaining the conservatism and lack of vision that accompanies $100 million and larger donations to charitable causes: philanthropic structural investments we might term them. Putting that much money towards a goal requires a significant project just to understand how to best spend it, even when the aim is very clear, such as "let us cure this one disease." It is very, very rare to see this much money arrive in support of a young cause, as the people with that much money to invest have not led the lives that would lead them to understand the cutting edge of any of the fields they might support. This is really just specialization at work.

What has to happen to make it likely that someone exceedingly wealthy will donate $100 million to furthering a field of research? There must have been decades of growth, including the very earliest research interest; then a surge in the scientific output; then hundreds of millions of dollars of funding; a business cycle of new companies; a brace of failures; thousands of articles in the popular press; a backlash and down cycle; resurgence and renewed investment in the billions of dollars; tremendous progress; excitement in the public and scientific communities; tens of thousands of researchers flocking to the field; a new breakthrough every week; ten years of incremental advances demonstrated in commercial medicine; early therapies demonstrated in the field; the branch of medicine now known to every common fellow on the street.

That is what has to happen for the average exceedingly wealthy philanthropist to feel comfortable devoting time, effort, and large sums of money into making a structural investment in a field of medicine. Think of the history and presently enthusiastic, well-funded, widely supported state of stem cell research while you take a look at this article:

Sanford donates $100 million to UCSD

Philanthropist Denny Sanford is donating $100 million to UC San Diego to speed up attempts to turn discoveries about human stem cells into drugs and therapies to treat everything from cancer and Alzheimer's disease to spinal-cord injuries and weak hearts. The $100 million donation represents the core of a larger $275 million effort by UC San Diego to create some of the first clinical trials based on human stem cells, which can develop into many different types of cells, including some that can help repair tissues and organs. The newly created Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center will enable the school to hire 20 to 25 scientists and recruit patients for drug trials.

One of the points raised by Peter Thiel and others is that this sort of support of well-established research fields is where philanthropy is at its least useful. I don't want to point to the example above to say "do better," because I don't think I have the standing to do so. Sanford has arguably done more to make the world a better place with that work than I ever will. But still: at some point the philanthropic community should figure out a way to be something other than last to the party, adding to a sure thing at the end of the day rather than boldly taking risks in the early days to more rapidly build the medical technologies needed for a better world.

I would like the near future of rejuvenation biotechnology to be something other than a twenty to thirty year climb to get to the point at which big philanthropy and the world at large notices its existence and decides that it is a legitimate field of research, worthy of additional support. To arrive at that position, billions will have been raised and spent, early therapies deployed, and thousands of scientists engaged. But it would all go so very much faster if someone would just decide tomorrow that the best thing to do was to make a $100 million investment in building the vision for rejuvenation biotechnology laid out by the SENS Research Foundation.

I know this with confidence because I've personally spent enough time over the past decade to understand the research landscape and the prospects for new and radically disruptive advances in medical biotechnology relating to aging and longevity. As a general rule, anyone with $100 million to invest has not. Such is the human condition.