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Laura Deming is one of the people influential in the sweeping shift of the past few years in research and development of therapies to treat aging, in which rejuvenation biotechnologies such as senolytic therapies finally started the move from the laboratory into startup companies, on the way to the clinic. She founded the first venture fund to specialize in what people are now calling the longevity sector of the biotech industry, somewhat before that longevity sector actually existed in any meaningful way. Now, of course, funding is pouring into this area of development; the years ahead will be interesting. Now is very much the time for entrepreneurs to step up, find viable projects in aging and longevity, raise the funds, and carry them forward into clinical development.
At 25, Laura Deming has already achieved more in her chosen field – anti-ageing – than many people twice her age. At 12 she was researching the biology of ageing in the laboratory of one of the world’s leading scientists; at 14 she went to study physics at MIT, only to drop out at 17 and start a venture capital fund under the guidance of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Aubrey de Grey, the English gerontologist who has suggested that humans might live to be 1,000, calls Deming an “utter genius” for her scientific and investment “brilliance”.
There is a long history of charlatans selling the cure to getting old. However, Deming is no biohacker; she isn’t fiddling with diet, exercise, or pills to add an extra year or two to her life. Her ambition is far greater: to accelerate anti-ageing science so that everyone can live healthier lives for longer. To that end, she founded the Longevity Fund in 2011, when she was still a teenager, to invest in biotech companies making treatments for age-related diseases.
When Deming decided to start raising money to get anti-ageing research out of the lab, she was still too young to sign the paperwork – her father had to do it on her behalf. She received some advice from Peter Thiel but confesses that she really did not know what she was doing. “You’d google ‘How to start a venture capital fund’ and there were just no articles,” she says, amazed. For the first two years of the fund, Deming tried to sell investors on the “science and the humanitarian issues at stake”. “Honestly, for two years I gave the same pitch of, here’s a $20 billion market and here’s all the people who are dying, can someone help them? And everyone was like, ‘That’s amazing, you’re such a good person’, and nobody invested,” she laughs. She learned 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 that. Unity is developing a drug that targets senescent cells – decrepit cells that refuse to die. If it works, the drug could be used to treat age-related diseases such as osteoarthritis, eye diseases, and pulmonary diseases. Unity went public last year and now has a valuation of more than $350 million. “Having a concrete case to show potential investors … that was what brought it together.” Deming’s biggest fear is the hype cycle: what if a few early anti-ageing trials flop, and the money goes away? “That gives me a lot of fear, because it’s a field that is still very early. There’s a lot of stuff that’s still being figured out, and I think a lot of things will fail.”
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