Investor and philanthropist Peter Thiel has given millions to support the rejuvenation biotechnology research programs funded by the SENS Research Foundation and Methuselah Foundation before it. He was one of the first wealthy individuals to step forward and do this publicly and vocally, well ahead of the coming crowd, and continues to support this work.
I point out this article largely as a reminder that the biotechnology revolution has only just started its acceleration, and Thiel's activities in this space are now illustrative of the approach taken by many other funding institutions. Biotechnology today is greatly improved in comparison to just ten years ago, the tools ten times better, the cost of DNA sequencing and many other fundamental techniques plummeting. But this is just the warm up to the main event, in which the next two decades of life science research and its application will look a lot like the enormous growth and transition of the software industry between 1980 to 2000: a shift to openness, the breaking down of barriers between professional and amateur development as cost of participation falls, and a vast increase in output and experimentation:
What's less well known about Thiel is his affinity for biotechnology. By now he has invested in more than 25 startups, one of which has already turned into a $1 billion success story. That puts Thiel, 47, at the vanguard of prominent tech investors putting their money into biology. Google drew attention when it started Calico, a life-extension company, in 2013, and this year the accelerator Y Combinator said 10 of the 116 startups it accepted were biotechnology companies. Thiel, like Google, is motivated partly by the hope of defeating aging, an area of medicine that he says is "structurally underexplored." "The way people deal with aging is a combination of acceptance and denial," he says. "They accept there is nothing they can do about it, and deny it's going to happen to them."
The wider change is that biology is getting cheaper and easier to do. That means biotech companies are acting more like software startups. These days, you can order DNA online, crowdfund a genetic engineering project, or outsource experiments. Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics, a company that sells built-to-order DNA strands, says you can imagine what will happen if biotech becomes as easy as software to try and to test. An "explosion of biotech companies is coming," he says.
In 2011, the Thiel Foundation created Breakout Labs, an internal organization that gives small companies, often of just two or three people, investments of $350,000 to "de-risk" scientific ideas and prepare them to raise more cash. Breakout has become the foundation's largest effort. It has so far put $7 million into roughly two dozen hard science companies, nearly all them biotechnology firms. Lindy Fishburne, Breakout's executive director, says Thiel's hope is to "jailbreak" good technologies trapped in universities or other institutions and get them into the economy.