Retro Biosciences is one of the better funded ventures focused on the treatment of aging to have emerged from the Bay Area centered science, advocacy, and venture communities. The story of how Retro Biosciences came to exist is illustrative of that community, and the way in which a strong interest in human longevity on the part of a few high net worth individuals has shifted in its focus over the past decade. Interested parties have expanded their activities from philanthropic funding of research, initially the only viable approach to make progress, to the addition of much larger investments in startup companies, growing as the biotechnology of treating aging advanced to the point at which it became possible to generate an industry around it.
When a startup called Retro Biosciences led by Joe Betts-LaCroix eased out of stealth mode in mid-2022, it announced it had secured $180 million to bankroll an audacious mission: to add 10 years to the average human life span. It had set up its headquarters in a raw warehouse space near San Francisco just the year before, bolting shipping containers to the concrete floor to quickly make lab space for the scientists who had been enticed to join the company. The entire sum was put up by Sam Altman, the 37-year-old startup guru and investor who is CEO of OpenAI. He says he's emptied his bank account to fund two other very different but equally ambitious goals: limitless energy and extended life span.
Altman's investment in Retro is among the largest ever by an individual into a startup pursuing human longevity. Altman has long been a prominent figure in the Silicon Valley scene, where he previously ran the startup incubator Y Combinator in San Francisco. Altman says he has been placing bets in areas where underlying trends make him think technologies that look impossible today might actually work relatively soon.
About eight years ago, Altman became interested in so-called "young blood" research. These were studies in which scientists sewed young and old mice together so that they shared one blood system. The surprise: the old mice seemed to be partly rejuvenated. In 2018, Y Combinator launched a special course for biotech companies, inviting those with "radical anti-aging schemes" to apply, but before long, Altman moved away from Y Combinator to focus on his growing role at OpenAI.
Then, in 2020, researchers in California showed they could achieve an effect similar to young blood by replacing the plasma of old mice with salt water and albumin. "Sam called me up and said 'Holy moly, did you see this plasma intervention paper?'" recalls Betts-LaCroix, who had once been the part-time biotech partner at Y Combinator and still leads a meetup for longevity enthusiasts. Betts-LaCroix agreed that it was cool and some company should pursue it. "How about I fund you to do it?" Altman said. But Betts-LaCroix was already working on a different longevity-related idea, cellular reprogramming. Altman's response: "Why don't you do all those things?" Betts-LaCroix recalls saying. "I'll do it. I'll build a multi-program company around aging biology, and that is the big play. He was like, 'Great - let's go for it.'"