“How Can We Live Longer?”

October 23, 2019


I read this interview in the June 2, 2019 issue of the Weekend Financial Times and found it absolutely astounding -- even unbelievable. Of course, I hasten to add that I have never met anyone who could be described as a “prodigy” – in the world of science or any other endeavor.

Hannah Kuchler did this interview over lunch at the chic Tartine Manufactory on Alabama Street in San Francisco. She is the U.S. pharmaceutical and biotech correspondent at the Financial Times and has written an in-depth piece about a 25-year-old female science prodigy -- named Laura Deming – who has morphed into a venture capitalist with one goal: “I want to work on the world’s most important problem.”

She started on this quest when she was very young. Really? Yes, she was a 12-year-old homeschooled student in New Zealand when she decided what she wanted to be in life. “When I was a kid I really dreamed about helping my grandparents and parents,” she notes. So she persuaded her parents (an American father and a Korean mother) to move to the US so she could work with Professor Cynthia Kenyon at the University of California. When Deming emailed Kenyon asking if she could be a researcher in her lab, she chose well. The answer was “yes.” “I was super lucky,” says Deming, “no one else would have ever let me do that.”

Artwork: Courtesy of the Financial Times

At the age of 12 she was working on the biology of aging in the laboratory of one of the world’s leading scientists. At 14 she went to study physics at MIT. Then she dropped out at 17 to start a venture capital fund under the guidance of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel, the billionaire who is a co-founder of PayPal. He has played a significant role in Deming’s career – she was one of his elite “fellows” who was paid $100,000 to drop out of college and “build new things.”

Her ambition is to accelerate anti-aging science so that all of us can live healthier lives for longer. While large pharmaceutical companies stick to funding research into more obviously lucrative areas – cancer, cardiovascular disease – Silicon Valley’s adventurous investors are starting to bet on anti-aging.

The potential market is huge. The global population of people over the age of 80 is currently 125 million and is predicted to rise to 434 million by 2050.

According to Deming, “eight years ago there were zero dollars going into anti-aging; in the past two years $4 billion has been raised.”

She founded the Longevity Fund in 2011 when she was still too young to sign the paperwork – her father had to do it on her behalf. She confesses that she did not know what she was doing. For the first two years Deming tried to sell investors on the “science and humanitarian issues at stake.” She ultimately learned that she needed to link her passion for the cause to a “very concrete business case.”

The fund’s first investment in Unity Biotechnology, helped her to do just that. They are developing a drug that targets “decrepit cells that refuse to die.” If this works, it could be used to treat age-related ailments such as osteoarthritis, plus eye and pulmonary diseases. Unity went public and now has a valuation of more than $350 million.

How does she handle the issue of being a young woman without a PhD? “The only thing you can do is focus on the science,” she says. Her biggest fear is this: what if a few early anti-aging trials flop? And the money goes away? “There’s a lot of stuff that’s still being figured out – so a lot of things will fail,” she adds.

Deming may be a prodigy but she’s also a clear-eyed pragmatist. It may be a long, hard road BUT what if it succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dream? It will revolutionize mankind.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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