The Roles that Investors Play in the Development of Rejuvenation Therapies

I notice that later this month there is a networking event for investors interested in longevity science and the opportunities to invest in the field, with Aubrey de Grey, Sonia Arrison, and some of the other folk who move in Thiel Capital circles. It is taking place in Menlo Park in the California Bay Area on the 21st:

Launching Longevity: Funding the Fountain of Youth

Can technology make human longevity a reality? As the pace of discovery accelerates, scientists and entrepreneurs are closing in on the Fountain of Youth. Disrupting the aging process by hacking the code of life, promises better health and longer maximum lifespans. With many layers of complexity from science to ethics, there are still skeptics placing odds against human longevity. Venture capitalists are betting on success; putting big money on the table to fund longevity startups. Google/Alphabet and drugmaker AbbVie have invested $1.5 billion on Calico, while Human Longevity Inc. recently raised $220 million from their Series B funding round. Complementing traditional venture investment, VCs like Peter Thiel and Joon Yun have established foundations and prizes to accelerate the end of aging.

Why are VCs suddenly investing heavily in longevity startups? Will extended lifespan be a privilege of the wealthy or will the benefits be accessible to all? How long before these well-funded startups bring viable products to market? Join us on June 21 to hear our panel of leading experts discuss the science and business of human longevity.

Most people have, I think, at least a sketchy idea of what it is that venture capitalists and angel investors do: they put money into young companies in exchange for an ownership stake in the hopes of making a profit. Most companies fail or settle down into a barely profitable small business, and a few succeed and grow. Investment by professionals is far from the only way that companies can be funded in their early stages, however. Founders can take loans, use debt of other sorts, their own savings, and in the rare and lucky cases nothing more than revenue from clamoring hordes of new customers in order to fund the costs of setting up and the costs of growth.

For the transition of rejuvenation research after the SENS model from laboratory to startup to clinic, the venture and angel communities are especially important, however. Much more so than for most other fields. Networking is everything, and it is no accident that the SENS Research Foundation is headquartered in the Bay Area. The community of supporters who over the past 15 years raised up the SENS initiative and other related longevity science efforts upon their collective shoulders are in large part scientists, engineers, futurists, and investors - an overlapping group in that part of the world. Scientists found companies, engineers get wealthy enough to invest, and futurists spread the word, often enough while writing code by day. All rub shoulders, and dip into one another's fields of interest. The event above is representative of many meet and greet salons held in recent years in that community, with the only difference these days being that the first startup companies implementing the first rejuvenation therapies now exist. There are now opportunities to invest for the Bay Area network, and the people who listened to the futurists and wanted this to come to pass have a chance to bend their day jobs around to help.

Investing is something that investors do moderately well - or at least those that remain investors for any length of time. There is a method and a discipline and a body of tradition and knowledge. But it arguably isn't the most important thing they can be doing at this juncture in the development of longevity science. What the investment community should do, attempts to some degree, but is very poor at accomplishing is the process of nudging along pre-commercial efforts, of funding the research that will produce a crop of companies working on the technology that they would like to see exist. This is something that will not be carried out by any of the other institutions that have traditionally funded the development of early stage companies. Yet for the most part even personally interested investors leave philanthropy in their field to other people, and thus funding for truly radical, high-risk, high-reward new research is next to non-existent. The other side of the coin, targeted funding for medical research projects with excellent prospects, or that are only a few years and a million dollars away from the leap to a candidate therapy and a startup, nudging them into the target zone, is also very thin on the ground.

This is a point that Peter Thiel has been making for a few years under the heading of "radical philanthropy." The investor community does carry out philanthropy, but in a scattershot fashion, without much organization, rigor, or discipline. There is no body of tradition and knowledge in the same way as exists for the day job of for-profit investment. So a great many philathropic ventures are ultimately largely a waste, failing to achieve practical ends because they fail to spur the practical outcome of pushing research towards the clinic. Money is poorly used. There is very little in the way of nudging promising research across the line, which is strange given that this is a very good way to be positioned as the primary investor in ventures in a field that an individual might want to see move faster.

The SENS Research Foundation and Methuselah Foundation are examples of a more ad-hoc iteration of the sort of organization that might exist were this line of thinking about research, investment, and startups taken to a more rigorous conclusion. Which is to say that launch of a company is not the start of the process, and investors should be involved well before that point if they want to better achieve their goals. Many of the donors to SENS rejuvenation research projects and Methuselah Foundation initiatives are investors themselves, and some are presently coming together as a loose community of peers to invest in the startups that are now beginning to emerge from research efforts. Yet this is still at the present time, even hard-won as it is, only one increment better than a collection of happenstance events and connections, tumbling in more or less the right direction and working out because everyone involved has much the same goal in mind - which is to say therapies to treat aging, and sooner rather than later. Building on what has been learned so far, better and more organized ways to meld philanthropy and investment might be assembled. A community with deep pockets that can build the intricate networking tools and the energetic, highly networked approach to for-profit investment that presently exists should be able to make the leap over the barrier to organize and assist the non-profit research pipeline as well.


Hmm, this sounds like an interesting event. I just might go, it would be great to hear Audrey and Sonia speak. Thanks for the heads up, Reason.

Posted by: Robert Church at June 8th, 2016 10:20 PM

Peter Thiel's net worth, according to Forbes, is roughly three times what is needed for RMR. Why SENS is still so poorly funded?

Posted by: Antonio at June 9th, 2016 5:24 AM

@Antonio - I guess Peter Thiel supports the SENS approach, but is not as all in as say Aubrey de Grey.

As as Reason pointed out in the (excellent) "Dear Wealthy Person" essay, most billionaires are beholden to entire clans of dependents, most of whom will not want the clan leader to be ploughing 30 to 50% of their available fortune (and probably over 100% of their available cash) into a risky venture.

Posted by: Jim at June 9th, 2016 7:43 AM

Yes at least Peter Thiel has realized there's no point being the richest man in the cemetery.

Posted by: John at June 9th, 2016 7:53 AM

An intriguing post. Funding and organization is definitely necessary in this field. What we need is a council, organization, or authority that can help co-ordinate research efforts, and create a research roadmap that that is able to link both on-shore and offshore efforts in an IFTT-like way.

With the really excellent advances we've seen in the last couple years, a significant, available lifespan increase is just a few years away with the right funding and direction.

Posted by: Donovan Walker at June 10th, 2016 12:28 AM

"Yes at least Peter Thiel has realized there's no point being the richest man in the cemetery."

And now that he's finished stomping Gawker into the ground where it belongs (Thiel funded Hulk Hogan's legal campaign), perhaps he can devote even more money and attention to more important things, such as not dying.

Posted by: Slicer at June 10th, 2016 4:31 PM

Like a lot of us I'm sure, I often fantasize about what I'd do with Thiel's money. Probably spend half of the interest off it to fund SENS directly, the other half to lobby Congress for life extension causes: dramatically increasing basic aging research funding, changing FDA rules so businesses could develop drugs/treatments to fight aging itself, removing regulatory hoops biotech companies have to jump through, etc. I'd donate to any politician who'd pursue those goals, regardless of party.

That's one area where I think Thiel has a blindspot. He only supports Libertarian candidates (who never win) or Republican candidates (Lately he's funding Trump who probably won't win either). For the sake of self-preservation alone, if I were him I'd support politicians from any party if they agreed to pursue life extension goals. Survival trumps politics.

Posted by: KC at June 11th, 2016 12:58 AM

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