Notes on the Longevity Leaders Event, January 2019

LSX, a life science and biotechnology business networking organization, runs a yearly conference that took place in London this week. As a part of the festivities this year, the organizers added the Longevity Leaders event. This is one of a number of new conference series recently launched, in response to the great influx of funding and interest in the development of means to treat aging. Not all of that is rejuvenation biotechnology after the SENS model of damage repair, but a growing percentage is, even if that is near all a growing fleet of senolytics startups. A few years from now, we'll all have lost count of myriad methods of achieving rejuvenation via removal of senescent cells, scores of small molecule drug candidates and numerous startup companies. Even this first thin slice of the full rejuvenation biotechnology industry ahead of us will be massive and energetic.

The community of supporters and folk interested in the intersection of biotechnology and aging are getting quite organized; since this conference was on a Monday and thus going to see a lot of people flying in a day or two beforehand, the Aikora Health principals organized a large meet and greet for investors, entrepreneurs, and others on Sunday night. It went very well, and was a most useful addition to the normal conference schedule. I don't get over to the other side of the pond all that often, and met many new and interesting people. I came away with a great sense of anticipation on the part of the business community: they expect big things from the treatment of aging. We could all learn from this pre-conference meeting exercise, and try to make it a more commonplace occurrence in the community.

Each of the conference series related to biotechnology and aging has its own focus. Undoing Aging is the SENS rejuvenation biotechnology conference; the Ending Age-Related Diseases series has a focus on investor and entrepreneur networking in the context of scientific and technical goals; the Longevity Forum engages the broader public and has explicitly non-profit goals in advancing treatments for age-related disease; and so forth. The Longevity Leaders event was distinguished by a focus on bringing in medical insurance, life insurance, and pension industry people, particularly those who recognize that they have major, systemic, costly problems that could be solved by either (a) grasping the true scope of gains in healthy and overall life span that are possible and plausible in the near future, or (b) the introduction of partially effective treatments to control or reverse mechanisms of aging that produce gains in healthy life span.

The pensions and insurance industries could be strong allies, given the right frame of mind. They have deep pockets, and parts of the industry are capable of spending comparatively large amounts on treatments for older individuals, provided that those treatments saved them from greater losses further down the line. Given that aging produces immense costs, there must be a way to restructure these industries to both fund and benefit from any approach to rejuvenation in the old. Sadly the conference broke out into three groups for much of the day, and since I was presenting in the startup-focused group, I couldn't listen in on the insurance-focused presentations.

A number of biotechnology startup and other companies presented at the event. Insurance giant Prudential was one of the larger ones; they are clearly very engaged with this business of aging. The widely distributed Prudential advertising materials that encouraged people to think about radical life extension, living to 150, are clearly not a flash in the pan. This is an organization in which many groups understand the scope of the change that is coming, and at least some are on their way to being appropriately concerned and active. Among the startups there were Oisin Biotechnologies, Ichor Therapeutics, Repair Biotechnologies (the company Bill Cherman and I founded last year), Cleara Biotech, Senolytx, and many others. When I was up on stage to talk about Repair Biotechnologies, I was actually following right on the heels of three senolytics companies presenting in sequence: perhaps feeling a little subtle peer pressure there, given that I was discussing rejuvenation biotechnologies that had absolutely nothing to do with senescent cells.

I also participated in a very interesting round table discussion on the challenges to commercial development of therapies to treat aging at the present time - and of course what we might do to address those challenges. It was led by Sree Kant of Life Biosciences, and once again the senolytics contingent was the largest distinct group at the table. (This is something of a taste of what is to come; it seems that every group capable of the work is moving towards launching a small molecule senolytic treatment. A few years from now there will be many more startup companies in this space). Now, it is my contention that we have two major issues in development of rejuvenation therapies: (a) all of the entities involved - universities, researchers, entrepreneurs, investors - generally do a poor job of identifying and nurturing highly promising technologies that are currently in the late stages of research, but ready for the leap to a startup company, and (b) there are too few entrepreneurs capable of taking on this work, possibly an order of magnitude too few.

What leads me to this conclusion is that, as a result of my years of watching the field, I know of at least a score of languishing technologies that should be moving ahead. They are easy to find if you have a grasp of the areas of development relevant to aging. Repair Biotechnologies is working on two of them, and we obtained the rights (where that is even needed) very easily. One of them could have been developed in the 1990s, and has failed to make the leap from the labs at least twice that we know of. This sort of situation is enormously frustrating, and worse, deadly. Countless people have suffered and died of age-related diseases younger than might have been the case over the last century, and at root this is because institutions and communities are just not good at the technology transition from laboratory research to corporate development.

Considered as a model of organization, Life Biosciences is an approach to trying to make things better, though as ever I would say that many of the technologies they focus on have limited upside in the matter of human longevity. They are a structure that creates companies around research projects where the researchers have no entrepreneurial leanings, and then provides all of the support and advice to help those companies succeed. Juvenescence represents a different model, in which the companies are more independent, but the principals are still very energetically trying to solve the challenge of identifying the technical opportunities. Another approach is to build an industry-wide culture of companies that run multiple distinct projects, encapsulating each in a subsidiary company structure to obtain funding and become independently run when it achieves success, but at the head is a single team of entrepreneurs. Ichor Therapeutics, for example, now has several spin-off companies, but all of their work is managed by the founders of the original parent company. Many other groups could do this.

Overall, we seem to be in a period of acceleration, of a great influx of venture funding, almost with the tenor of optimism of the early internet years. This year is far more active than last. The people who were convinced early on that the treatment of aging will be a vast industry are well into their land-grab activities, using large funds to engage all the more obvious and high-profile research groups and funding the most evident startups. Their activities act as a signal to other capital ventures, which gravitate towards this space. That in turn will help raise the profile of the treatment of aging with other large industries, such as insurance and pensions. This is all very rewarding and sudden for those of us who went through the past twenty years of slow, incremental advocacy, one day at a time. We chipped away at the flood gates, and now they are breaking, and the speed is surprising when seen at first hand, even given that we knew intellectually that this outcome was exactly the goal.