Money makes the world turn, and little progress in any field of human endeavor can be made without someone investing in that progress. Creating rejuvenation therapies after the SENS model of repairing the causes of aging is no different. It is true that near all funding for SENS research over the past fifteen years or so has been non-profit, with a smattering of government grants, funding researchers in their effects to build the foundations for the medical control of aging in the laboratory. That is changing, however. Some strands of SENS research still have years of academic work left yet, but others are on the verge of commercial development, with research activities now taking place in startup companies rather than in academic laboratories. As these startups come into being, they need seed funding to make progress, and we can help make that happen.
Request for Startups in the Rejuvenation Biotechnology Space
There is a sizable amount of money out there on the sidelines waiting for progress in rejuvenation research to reach the point of clinical development: investors of all stripes, from biotech veterans and new longevity-focused funds to angel communities. Fight Aging! wishes to see more rejuvenation biotechnologies emerge into for-profit development in the next few years, and in the present funding environment researchers should make the leap to a startup sooner rather than later. These Request for Startups calls cover some of the most plausible areas, and Fight Aging! is interested in hearing from those positioned to start companies to develop the relevant therapies.
Request for Startups in the Rejuvenation Biotechnology Space, 2017 Edition: better senescent cell assays; restoration of the aged thymus; safe ablation of immune cells free from side-effects; packaged and reviewed medical tourism services; gene therapy with reliable and established high levels of cell coverage; small molecule or enzymatic glucosepane cross-link breaking.
Fight Aging! Supports SENS Rejuvenation Therapy Startups
Just as Fight Aging! has pitched in to help non-profit fundraising for SENS research these past few years, providing material support to new SENS startups in their critical earliest stages is also a priority. Fortunately anyone with a few tens of thousands of dollars to invest and a willingness to undertake the risk of investing in an early stage company can do just this. It is easy enough to contact any one of the the highly networked organizations in our community, such as the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation, to express an interest in investing in seed or later rounds for new SENS companies as they arrive on the scene. The Methuselah Foundation has even created the Methuselah Fund for just this purpose, open to investors of all stripes who want to diversify across many startups in this space. A small network of for-profit SENS supporters is forming these days, made up of entrepreneurs, angel investors, venture capitalists, and ordinary folk with a little money that can be risked. There are only a few such companies today, but the number will grow in the years ahead.
In the tradition of taking action rather than just talking about it, Fight Aging! has invested in the following startups working on the development of SENS rejuvenation therapies:
- Oisin Biotechnologies (2016) A gene therapy approach to senescent cell clearance.
- Ichor Therapeutics (2016) Breaking down A2E in retinal cell lysosomes.
- CellAge (2017) Better cellular senescence assays through the use of gene promotors.
Funding Startups is a Necessary Continuation of Non-Profit Research
From the point of view of where the money goes, there is actually little difference between investing in an early stage biotechnology startup and making charitable donations to a laboratory group. In both cases those funds buy research: use of laboratory resources, the ever-expensive reagents needed for modern biochemical research, aged mice for animal studies, the efforts of scientists, and all the other essentials. There is no rule that says a particular research project has to be carried out before or after the point at which non-profit labwork transitions to for-profit labwork; where the work happens in the typical chronology of the clinical translation of science to medicine is very much a matter of circumstance and the character of those involved. The closer things come to a working prototype, the more likely that someone will launch a company to make that leap.
It is just as important to support the development of nascent SENS companies in their early stages as it is to fund the foundational work required prior to the point at which founding a startup becomes practical. An important part of the future of the rejuvenation biotechnology field is to create a virtuous cycle in which which an ecosystem of growing companies feeds new funding back into fundamental research. The ideal situation for such a company is illustrated by Oisin Biotechnologies, in which the people and organizations with the largest ownership stakes and the earliest investment are all SENS insiders who are going to pour any realized gains back into research in one way or another. As for all startups in biotechnology, these are long bets, and there must be many of them in order to catch the few that spark into lasting flame. Most will fail, leaving only their research results, and the ones that succeed may take five years or more to get to the point at which funds can meaningfully flow back to research. Nonetheless, these bets must be made. When it comes to creating new therapies and making them available, this is the only game in town.
The First Successful SENS Startup Will Take On the Rest of SENS
All it takes is one SENS-focused startup to do well enough with one class of rejuvenation therapy, and, provided it is run by the right people, it will sweep up and carry forward all of the rest of the SENS agenda. One thing to remember about SENS rejuvenation biotechnology is that it is very cheap in comparison to, say, traditional drug development. Finishing the SENS agenda to produce first generation therapies in mice capable of repairing all of the primary forms of cell and tissue damage that cause aging, say half a billion to a billion dollars at this point, is much less than the cost of developing a single small molecule drug in the big pharma world, presently around two billion dollars or so. A startup company in this field that made the transition to becoming something like a mid-sized pharmaceutical entity, with a market capitalization in the low billions, could probably finish prototyping SENS on its own over a decade. It wouldn't be on its own, of course. If nothing else, the current clinical development of senescent cell clearance therapies, coupled with lifespan studies in mice, is going to wake up the world on the topic of rejuvenation.
Sadly, Investing in Public Biotechnology Securities Doesn't Speed Progress
Investing in an early stage company is highly risky, but it absolutely makes a difference. That money goes directly towards carrying out research and making progress, and matters can be arranged to ensure that the results of that research are published and propagated regardless of whether or not the company prospers. Investing in biotechnology stocks in the market is only ordinarily risky, in the same way as any stock purchase. It doesn't help speed up progress, however. That money doesn't go towards research: all of the material benefits to the company were realized when they went public and initially sold stock to the public. It doesn't much matter who buys or sells the stock after that, or at least not at the level of ordinary investors, as none of that later exchange of money is going towards research and development.
Investors Can and Should Do More to Accelerate the Research that Leads to Startups
Investing is something that investors do moderately well - there is a method and a discipline and a body of tradition and knowledge. But it isn't the only thing that investors can do to speed the development of longevity science. What the investment community should do, attempts to some degree, but remains very poor at accomplishing, is the process of nudging along pre-commercial scientific efforts, of strategically funding specific research projects in order to produce a new crop of longevity science companies. This seeding of the field can be highly effective, as the SENS Research Foundation has demonstrated over the past decade or so, yet for the most part even personally interested investors leave philanthropy in their field to other people. Thus funding for truly radical, high-risk, high-reward new research is next to non-existent. The other side of the coin, targeted funding for medical research projects with excellent prospects, or that are only a few years and a million dollars away from the leap to a candidate therapy and a startup, nudging them into the target zone, is also very thin on the ground.
This is a point that Peter Thiel has been making for a few years under the heading of "radical philanthropy." The investor community does conduct philanthropy, but in an ad-hoc fashion, without much organization, rigor, or discipline. There is no body of tradition and knowledge in the same way as exists in the business of for-profit investment. Thus great many philathropic ventures conducted by investors are ultimately largely a waste, failing to achieve the practical ends that are possible in principle because they fail to meaningfully advance research towards the clinic. Money is poorly used, and there is little in the way of deliberate, carefully efforts to nudge promising research across the line. This is strange given that it is a very good way to be positioned as the primary investor in ventures in a field that an individual might want to see move faster.
All of this is to note that the launch of a company happens a long way after the start of the development process, and investors should become involved well before that point if they want to better achieve their goals. Many of the donors to SENS rejuvenation research projects initiatives are investors themselves, and some are presently coming together as a loose community of peers to invest in the startups that are now beginning to emerge from research efforts. Yet this is still at the present time, even hard-won as it is, only one increment better than a collection of happenstance events and connections, tumbling in more or less the right direction and working out because everyone involved has much the same goal in mind - which is to say therapies to treat aging, and sooner rather than later. Building on what has been learned so far, better and more organized ways to meld philanthropy and investment might be assembled. A community with deep pockets that can build the intricate networking tools and the energetic, highly networked approach to for-profit investment that presently exists should be able to make the leap over the barrier to organize and assist the non-profit research pipeline as well.
Last updated: March 25th 2017