Ronjon Nag is an academic turned inventor turned entrepreneur turned investor in the communications and software industries, and now of late the longevity industry, a career path shared with a growing number of his peers in the Bay Area investment community. Alongside his principals Anastasiya Giarletta and Artem Trotsyuk, Ronjon Nag runs R42, a fund that grew out of his angel investing experience and successes. As is the case for near all of those who arrived comparatively early to the advent of this new industry, the R42 Group principals have a strong personal interest in health and longevity.
The longevity industry started up in earnest over the past five years or so, as early successes in aging research moved out of the labs and into biotech companies. In parallel, a growing number of technology investors have developed an interest in this field, expanding their portfolios to include biotechnology startups focused on aging. This is the next step in an ongoing process of support and interest: the application of the life sciences to the slowing and reversal of aging has long been an attraction to the successful and the influential of the Bay Area. It isn't an accident that the SENS Research Foundation was located there, for example, and nor is it an accident that much of the charitable funding that has supported rejuvenation research programs over the past decade or more was provided by technology industry philanthropists.
Your history is that of a technology entrepreneur turned technology investor; what drew your interests to biotech and the longevity industry?
I like really tough problems - I've done a lot of work in artificial intelligence and 30 years ago speech recognition was really tough yet we now see these technologies being used everywhere. Just as speech recognition predominately started out in university labs, it was commercialization that really got it into people's hands. I'm a big believer in the entrepreneurial process to speed things along, and I think in biotech and longevity the entrepreneurial process is going to accelerate the field. I'm still view myself as an entrepreneur as well as an investor - I really get involved with the companies I invest in - I have about 60 positions and I think the entrepreneurs appreciate working with someone who has been where they are currently. The empathy is important to have enhanced communication to help solve problems.
You have many fellow travelers in the technology investor and AI community, folk with an interest in aging. Why do you think there is such an overlap between software, technology, AI, longevity?
Today there is currently an inflection point where the tools of mathematics and computer science are accelerating the developments in biotech. We now live in a world where no one person has all the skills individually to solve problems and so I feel I can contribute mathematically, scientifically and commercially. Like artificial intelligence before, which is still quite difficult, biotech is also difficult - unlike physics, laws of biology are difficult to come by. Biology is beginning to turn into an engineering subject and I think we are seeing that subject can be accelerated and deployed at lower cost than previously. Biotech is notoriously expensive, and also takes a long time. We now have the vision that solutions can simply be "calculated"; we still have to do clinical trials which take actual time, but even there we can use Bayesian tests to efficiently implement trials.
Over at R42, we have a very wide definition of longevity from curing age related diseases in biotech, searching for solutions to the root cause of aging, but also technologies to assist people as they age, robots and the like.
My end of the longevity community is much more interested in biotech than in infrastructure technologies such as AI for drug discovery. What is on your investment radar in pure biotech for longevity?
Well, I would say that AI for drug discovery could actually find new drugs to solve aging, and quite optimistic on that, making several bets in that area, and a fundamental thesis is that computation can spit many more candidates for longevity that anyone can do manually. On the radar for pure biotech really looking at mechanisms that start to crumble as we get older. One is the thymus which helps us build out our immune system but goes away in our late teens. There are a few efforts looking at regrowing the thymus when we need it again when we are 80. We have an investment in Repair Biotechnologies, your company! Another area we are looking at is mitochondrial mechanisms. Mitochondria provide 90% of the energy of our cells, and as we age, they don't work the same. Looking at how we can correct them or replace them with fresh ones is an area to look at.
None of us are getting any younger yet, at least not meaningfully so. What is your take on what we should be doing to speed up progress towards human rejuvenation?
We do need more focused funds like R42 to able to sort the wheat from the chaff and be triage systems for larger funds to follow with more money in the best ideas. These early funds need to surround these early stage ideas with resources - people, connections, partners to make sure they flourish. Since aging is a significant source of mortality, matching government funds would be able to accelerate more efforts given the risk in the field. I think once we have a poster child of a successful aging company going public there will be an acceleration of investment.
You are big on education, formally and informally; what do you hope to be the outcome of your efforts to raise the profile of work on longevity?
Yes, education is important. I teach courses on AI and Longevity both at the R42 Institute and at Stanford University. The main thing here is to provide people from many disciplines the tolls to be able to contribute in their own way. If people can contribute then people will participate. There is a natural interest in living healthy and having a long life. There are many disciplines - physicists, psychologists, chemists, engineers, even ethicists, economists and lawyers who can bring their perspectives and with more people talking about from different fields it will naturally raise the profile of longevity science.