The Request for Startups (RFS) is something lately popularized by the venture incubator Y Combinator, a part of their shifting approach to the field. Having achieved sufficient growth and cultural dominance, they now have the ability to play a greater role in shaping the future, insofar as startups and the entrepreneurial community as a whole are tools to create change. To the extent that the Y Combinator principals would like to see specific changes in to world take shape over the decades ahead, they would like to help nudge that along by funding credible startups in some areas presently neglected. So they put out the RFS, a notice they they are willing to listen to pitches and are interested in funding startups in a set of specific fields or with specific focuses. The name is a play on the technical standards practice of putting forward protocol definitions in the form of Request for Comments, RFC. Standards of all sorts become known by their RFC number, and referring to RFC 1234, RFC 3456, and the like in the course of development is very common in software engineering circles.
The few SENS rejuvenation therapy startups launched and underway over the past year or two have adequately demonstrated that there is no real shortage of venture funding for our corner of the medical biotechnology field at the present time. If anything there is far more money on the sidelines waiting for an opportunity than there are SENS-relevant companies to invest in. This is partly a function of the era, in which various self-serving decisions by the powers that be have created a flood of easy money in search of returns, any returns, but more importantly it is a function of the fact that the SENS approach to treating aging is only just starting to emerge from the laboratory. SENS is all about repairing the clearly identified forms of cell and tissue damage that cause aging, which if done well enough should postpone aging indefinitely in younger adults, and at least partially rejuvenate the old. There are numerous types of damage, so while forms of senescent cell clearance are under development in various companies, items like cross-link clearance or mitochondrial DNA repair are still years out, and other problems may still be working their way through the laboratory ten to fifteen years from now.
Given the imbalance between available funding and relevant available startups, I think it would be a good plan for the SENS Research Foundation, or other parts of our community such as the Methuselah Foundation, to publish, maintain, and publicize a Request for Startups - a moderately detailed set of areas that investors in the SENS network are interested in funding. The aging research community is small and highly connected, and it can be argued that the SENS Research Foundation staff are very familiar with a large fraction of all of the research groups who might produce work leading to a startup to develop a possible SENS repair therapy. As matters progress, however, that fraction is going to become smaller. The world is a large place. As new groups focused on aspects of SENS emerge, some form of prominent banner will be useful, influencing unaffiliated researchers in the direction of considering the leap to run a startup. Further, I think that it isn't yet widely known that anyone who turns up with a credible technology and team to start for-profit clinical development of a SENS rejuvenation therapy will have no problems whatsoever in raising funds. In the non-profit laboratory world, aging researchers operate in a very resource poor environment; funding for any type of initiative is hard to come by. It is not always obvious to people immersed that culture that a wealth of funding awaits just on the other side of the conceptual wall that is crossed when moving into for-profit work. How many projects relevant to SENS exist out there, languishing for lack of funding, and where the researchers are not in contact with the SENS Research Foundation? I'd argue that we'll never know the answer to that question unless we aggressively advertise the fact that investors are interested.
It is of course frustrating to see so little interest in funding research while so much money is waiting on the sidelines for that research to reach the point of viable commercial development. It is like watching someone fail to connect the obvious two dots to improve their present situation. Changing this state of affairs is a big challenge, somewhat beyond the scope of this post: I've written on the topic in the recent past. Reforming the investment world to the point at which it is understood that investing in companies is not as effective in many situations as investing in research and then in the resulting companies that emerge from that research ... well, that is the work of a lifetime for some career advocate or leader in the venture community. Sadly all too few investors are in it to change the world, but when it comes to aging research the primary goal is exactly this: to change the world, to eliminate the suffering and death caused by aging. Life trumps money, and money is only useful for what it can do, not what it is. Investing in SENS rejuvenation research and development is one of the growing number of ways in which money can be traded for an expectation of more healthy life in the years ahead.
The recently launched SENS Project|21 is the obvious home for a rejuvenation biotechnology Request for Startups, given the pledge of $5 million in research funding and $5 million in venture investment by Michael Greve earlier this year as a starting point for the initiative. But there are a number of other places such a call to action could usefully reside. This is something for the broader community to think about as we move closer to the advent of the first treatments for the causes of aging.