A Look at Peter Thiel's Biotechnology Investments

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.

Link: http://www.technologyreview.com/news/535771/a-contrarian-in-biotech/


I'm just going to go ahead and be the killjoy here by mentioning the rise of other unprecedented things developed in the 80s and 90s: Computer viruses. To mention an easy one, both measles and ebola have been sequenced; theoretically, bioengineering Measlebola (floats like an airborne, stings like a hemmorhagic) would not be terribly hard in comparison to some of the stuff usually discussed here.

My point is that the government needs to get in front of this- not by making biotech illegal (how well does THAT ever work, especially when the hackers are in Russia?), but by actively developing human security measures in the form of vaccines and direct immune system improvements. The CDC needs a group of people like the Pentagon's Tiger Teams to seriously start thinking about what simple bioweapons haven't been developed yet, and find ways to inoculate humanity against them before anyone gets infected.

There's a word for a zero-day exploit in biotech. It's called a plague.

Posted by: Slicer at March 16th, 2015 9:54 AM

On the other hand it is good they are supporting small studies to get critical research to market.

I am helping to get a HPE Plasma study funded so we can test in the human model and see if rejuvenation occurs as it has in mice. This may be a way to get the funding needed to get this done.

Posted by: Steve H at March 16th, 2015 10:36 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.