This month, prominent Silicon Valley investor Y Combinator (YC) put out a call for companies working to develop therapies that can turn back the impact of aging on human health and life span. If you’re a scientist, entrepreneur, or early-stage life-science company that wants to increase human longevity, YC will give you between $500k and $1 million to do it, in exchange for a 20% stake, lab space, and practical advice from the accelerator’s partners.
“We think there’s an enormous opportunity to help people live healthier for longer, and that it could be one of the best ways to address our healthcare crisis,” YC president Sam Altman wrote in his blog post announcing the new venture.
Silicon Valley is increasingly turning its attention towards efforts to treat aging as a medical condition, prompting an important cultural change on the topic. In 2014, Y Combinator funded their first biotech company, Ginkgo Bioworks. Since then, the Boston-based startup has become a symbol in anti-aging research within the synthetic biology community. All over Silicon Valley the idea that the code of aging can be hacked all the way down to DNA-making death optional continues to gain prevalence.
The desire to eradicate aging has also inspired tech magnates and mega-rich philanthropists like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel, perhaps Silicon Valley’s best-known advocate for curing death, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Tesla’s Elon Musk. Additionally, the fact that established mainstream VC entities like Jim Mellon’s Juvenescence venture, Y Combinator, the Longevity Fund, Andreessen Horowitz, Kizoo Technology Ventures and others are now offering loud anti-aging public support, is a strong indication that healthspan and longevity is a field whose time has come.
That said however, it should be noted that while it’s exciting to see so much happening in the space, particularly with biotech startups, efforts to stop aging – a biological process that has a 100% mortality rate and one that’s closely linked with many of mankind’s worst ailments, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s – don’t actually get funded much to facilitate solid research. This is obviously related with the illogical, if not absurd fact that aging has not been classified as a disease. An argument that begs the question: how can something that with time increases the risk for disease and makes us more likely to die can not be considered a disease in itself?!!
“My sense is that economic incentives of drugs companies are screwed up,” Altman said in an interview with MIT Tech Review. “I don’t think we have enough people saying, how can we make a lot of people a lot healthier?”
YC said applications for funding are open now and will be announced in June. As investments, biotech startups are generally viewed as volatile and high-risk. Altman however, known for making wise investment decisions, seems optimistic about the prospects that await the biotech winners.
“You could make a pill that added two years to a person’s life that would be a $100 billion company,” he said during the MIT interview.
While this may be Altman’s sales-hype mode speaking, the fact that Sillicon Valley sees the human body as the next big candidate for technological optimization is extremely significant. This approach will help not only in terms of pushing mindshare towards this important area, but also serve as an indication that we may one day be able to slow and cure the process of aging. Yes, it is an ambitious vision and as an argument it’s definitely easier said than done. After all, defying the limits of the human form with all of its biological complexities is a monumental task. Still, if the tech industry approaches these problems with a ‘get-it-done’ attitude and uses everything, from advanced computing to artificial intelligence, genomics, DNA engineering, biotech and nanotech, then perhaps, and if we hack the code correctly, we could see breakthroughs in only a few years. Let’s face it, as a proposition, ending aging does not violate the laws of physics, so it’s achievable.