As I mentioned in yesterday's interview with Gary Hudson of Oisin Biotechnologies, I'm pleased to be able to say that Fight Aging! participated in the recent funding round for this senescent cell clearance startup. It was an unexpected opportunity to support this important line of SENS rejuvenation research, and will be my principle material contribution to the cause this year. From the point of view of where the money goes, there is actually little to no difference between investing in an early stage startup and making charitable donations to a laboratory group. In both cases the money buys research: lab time, reagents, mice, and the efforts of scientists. There is no rule that says a particular study has to be carried out before or after the point at which non-profit labwork transitions to for-profit labwork; where the work happens in the typical chronology of clinical translation is very much a matter of circumstance and the character of those involved. The closer things come to a working prototype, the more likely that someone will launch a company.
I consider it to be just as important to support the development of nascent SENS companies in their early stages as it is to fund the foundational work required prior to the point at which founding a startup becomes practical. An important part of the future of the rejuvenation biotechnology field is to create a virtuous cycle in which which an ecosystem of growing companies feeds new funding back into fundamental research. The ideal situation for such a company is the one for Oisin Biotechnologies, in which the people and organizations with the largest ownership stakes and the earliest investment are all SENS insiders who are going to pour any realized gains back into research in one way or another. As for all startups in biotechnology, these are long bets, and there must be many of them in order to catch the few that spark into lasting flame. Most will fail, leaving only their research results, and the ones that succeed may take five years or so to get to the point at which funds can meaningfully flow back to research.
Ah, but ... all it takes is one SENS startup to do well enough, and, provided it is run by the right people, it will sweep up and carry forward all of the rest of the SENS agenda. One thing to remember about SENS rejuvenation biotechnology is that it is very cheap in comparison to, say, traditional drug development. At this point finishing the SENS agenda to produce first generation therapies in mice capable of repairing all of the primary forms of cell and tissue damage that cause aging, say half a billion to a billion at this point, is much less than the cost of developing a single small molecule drug in the big pharma world, say two billion or so. A startup company in this field that made the transition to look something like a mid-sized pharmaceutical entity, with a market capitalization of billions, could probably finish up prototyping SENS on its own over a decade. It wouldn't be on its own, of course. If nothing else, the current clinical development of senescent cell clearance therapies, coupled with lifespan studies in mice, is going to wake up the world on the topic of rejuvenation. That is another good reason to support Oisin Biotechnologies.
At this point let me take a brief diversion into the evils of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). How is it that I knew about and had the chance to invest in Oisin Biotechnology and you didn't? Simply because I'm close enough to being an insider in this community to get an invite. The rules put in place on early stage investment essentially act to forbid what is called general solicitation: an early stage startup company can't simply advertise for investors. The founders can't reach out to the community at large. Raising a round cannot be public. The only only people normally allowed to invest in startups are those in the upper 5-10% of income or net worth, and the exceptions to that rule needed for seed and friends and family rounds, consisting of people of modest means like myself, to exist at all again require refraining from general solicitation. This is a great example of regulatory capture at work. The rules, ostensibly to protect people from themselves, as heaven forbid anyone actually be trusted to make their own assessments of risk in this world, are absolutely and definitely shaped over the years for far less altruistic reasons. The goal is to restrict the opportunity to invest in high-risk, high-reward early stage companies to established networks of professionals, to build barriers and keep out anyone not on the inside.
This is changing, however. The advent of Kickstarter and its competitors has meant that suddenly a whole range of companies could bypass the whole idea of early stage investment in favor of mass preordering as a source of early funding. That works really well for manufacturing and creative efforts with a fairly short time frame. It is obviously much less useful for biotechnology and medical development. The SEC, for reasons that may have to do with the basic bureaucratic urge to control everything, or the interest of various parties in building new opportunities for regulatory capture, has altered their rules on early stage funding to permit general solicitation in a crowdfunding like manner. Though of course, this being the SEC, it is legalistic, top-heavy, and people are still quite restricted in what they can invest. However, the basic point is that the investment process can be open and public, and in such a case anyone can invest. The new rules go into effect in the middle of 2016, and it remains to be seen how much of a mess or an opportunity it will be.
Mess or not, there is the potential to do something with this in our community. We are, modesty aside, pretty good at putting together and supporting modestly sized fundraisers for SENS research. If we can raise a quarter of a million in charitable donations for research, as happened last year, then I don't see it as beyond the pale that we could raise that much to crowdfund the founding of a future rejuvenation biotechnology company. Perhaps a glucosepane clearance venture, when that research gets to the point of a drug candidate, for example. Will this or something similar come to pass? Perhaps. It is at least possible, and as I pointed out above the funds still go to carrying out research. It is all a question of where that research is in the line of development from first spark through to clinical prototype.
So to finish up, what does this all mean for SENS charitable fundraising this year? Well, 2016 certainly promises to be as active as 2015 based on what I know is coming up already. The Major Mouse Testing Program will be running a crowdfunding effort in the months ahead, and I think at least one other SENS-relevant group may do the same. When it comes to this year's main SENS fundraising in the last quarter of the year, however, I can't lead in the same way as I've done in past years by putting money on the table and telling the world to match it - what might have been those funds went to Oisin Biotechnology and senescent cell research this year, an opportunity I could scarce turn down. Nonetheless, I believe we have plenty of time left in which to organize something interesting and useful, and I will still be the cheerleader to match the SENS Research Foundation's leadership when it comes to running the fundraiser. But let me put it to this audience: here is a bit of a gap, and all assistance in filling it will be greatly appreciated.