In this interview, Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation talks about how the foundation has sought to make philanthropy in support of the development of rejuvenation therapies an attractive prospect for high net worth investors, people who are usually much more interested in deploying capital into for-profit programs. Since the goal of the SENS community is to move projects from the lab to clinical development, particularly those promising projects in rejuvenation research that have previously lacked funding and moved more slowly than we'd all like, it should be quite compatible with the goals of investors. It makes sense to offer philanthropic support to programs that will later lead to startup biotech companies that are looking for investment.
How did Project 21 come into being?
The name Project 21 was always a bit of a misnomer. It wasn't really a project in any real sense, it was really just an umbrella name that we gave to our fundraising efforts, especially for high net worth donors. Basically, we had come to the conclusion that a very clear majority of the people who were giving us money or making positive noises about doing so tended to be investor types and were more inclined to give money to a benefactor than to charities. So the goal was to try to persuade people who were psychologically investors first and donors second to nevertheless support us. We felt that one thing that we had not emphasised sufficiently over the previous years, was the timeframe proximity of clinical trials - hence the focus on 2021.
How has Project 21 evolved since 2016?
Some of the more significant developments that have occurred are in terms of our business model. In 2016, we had barely started thinking in terms of spinning projects out as start-up companies. But it was in 2016 that Michael Greve came along - a German entrepreneur who made money in the early days of the web. He started giving us a million dollars a year, but he also started investing a million dollars a year in companies that were very much in our space, and was specifically interested in companies coming from our own projects. And that has worked out beautifully - he has now done that for a number of companies as well as a number of companies that are not spinouts from us, but are closely aligned with us.
And he's not been the only one, so now it's accurate to say that our business model is to work on important projects in this rejuvenation space for as long as it takes to get them to a point of sufficient proof of concept that an investor decides they can join the dots. As long as they can see the path from where we are to eventual revenue, and are therefore willing to back an actual for-profit entity. We've done this six or seven times now. But SENS Research Foundation is still a charity - we haven't shut up shop and declared victory yet. And that's because there are still some equally vital projects that have not reached an investable stage, so Project 21 is alive and kicking.
SENS Research Foundation is a charity - so how does the non-profit aspect connect with investors?
There is a big link. I always say to investors that if you're thinking about writing proper sized checks to start-up companies in the space, and you're happy with the really early stage of all of this - high risk, high reward - then you should also want to be donating to the foundation. What you will get for that is as much of my time as you want, which means that you will be in the position of having access to the information that will allow you to be a founding investor in the next start-up, which other people just won't have.
Back in 2015, we had one major donor, a very busy guy and seriously successful businessman, who, twice a year, would take an entire day to come visit us and get as much information as he was able to understand on everything we were doing. One day he turned around and said "Look, this project that you're funding - I think I can make money out of it." So he basically created a company, out of the blue, he took our people, gave us 10% of the company. And although that company was actually not successful, it changed our mindset completely. Since then, we have been aggressively pursuing that way of doing things, and all the other companies that we spun out have been very effective in terms of bringing in initial investment. It's definitely created a pipeline and I would say we are likely to be doing at least one a year, probably closer to two a year, for the foreseeable future.