Ronjon Nag is a noted angel investor in the Bay Area, and one of the newer entries to the select community of investors interested in the longevity industry. He brings his own perspective to the table; new points of view are always welcome as the community grows in size, and as more narrowly focused specialists begin to emerge. That said, given the enormous venture funding still in waiting, looking for places to invest, there is always the perverse incentive for fund managers to consider the space of aging and longevity in the broadest sense possible. There is a pressure to invest now, invest soon, find more deals to participate in. This leads one to invest in what might be profitable ventures, but ventures that do nothing to help address aging, and are only engaged in some form of compensation for aging. Eldercare, supportive services, tools to help people who have lost function. I expect many funding institutions to lose their way in this fashion.
These are, of course, interesting times for investors, to say the least: we are amidst something of a hysteria regarding all things viral, and also in the opening weeks of a bear market that is long overdue and thus likely to be more unpleasant than usual. If one had to invest somewhere under the present circumstances, there are certainly worse options than a preclinical biotech company working on new therapies, however. Such a company is essentially immune to the vagaries of the broader market at any time other than when it has to raise funds. For much of its life, it keeps to itself, carries out its research, and engages with regulators rather than customers. The opening weeks of a crash are a great time to provide the funds for a biotech company to carry out a year or two of work. By the time the company is ready for the next step and the next round of fundraising, the market will have turned around.
We understand that you're looking at longevity as a dedicated investment category - what are the main differences you see to regular healthcare investing?
We look at longevity in the widest sense. In addition to biotech there could be investments in areas such as lifelong learning, fintech for the aged, and work opportunity platforms for the aging workforce. Cutting across these themes, we like to see a computational element and the application of artificial intelligence and data-mining within these companies. I tend to agree that this is a new space that will develop as a pure play over the next few years - both in terms of understanding the landscape and having enough quality targets to invest in. I look at artificial intelligence, longevity, and healthcare and cover all those segments to have enough vehicles to invest in.
You've helped over 50 companies secure funding - what are you looking for in new start-ups?
Firstly, we typically like to invest very early, at the seed or pre-stage stage, often being among the first to write checks for new startups; so early stage is one dimension. We like to help shape the company at the earliest stages. Secondly, we like to invest in difficult technologies, which usually means they are unique and have very little competition. As such patents, although helpful, are not what we particularly look for - we would rather we see the potential for a business-technology 'moat' combination irrespective of any patent position. Thirdly, the product, technology and team must have strong science and/or computational components. An ideal team would be recent doctoral graduates combined with seasoned industrialists who get along with each other.
We cover longevity in a wide context - i.e. beyond rejuvenation technologies, what areas do you categorise as longevity?
Yes, we have the same view; there will be many societal impacts and there will be many different products other than biotech. These could be robots (helpers or companions), self-driving vehicles, workplace marketplaces, or telecommunications enhancers to allow for at home-work interactivity. For example when developing products for the disabled the products then will be used by a wider audience. Previously texting as a communication method allowed mobile phone makers to enable communication with deaf people, yet it turned out that this functionality was liked and widely used by everybody.
Are there any longevity companies that you've invested in that would be of interest to our readers?
There is a macro trend of increasing computation capability, both in terms of computer processing speed and increased availability of medical data. Healx.ai is trying to speed up the production of drugs by a factor of 20, and also reduce the cost of drug discovery by a factor of 20. The initial targets are diseases, but one would expect that hundreds of treatments could be created at a fraction of a cost of traditional methodologies. Another one is Exonate which has a treatment for macular degeneration - the normal treatment requires an injection into the eye which is not very pleasant for the patient or the doctor. Exonate is working on an eye drop and has a strategic arrangement with Janssen.