Laura Deming: ‘I wanted to work on the world’s most important problem’
The science prodigy turned venture capitalist on why we need to treat ageing as a disease to be treated
Laura Deming: ‘The idea was to starve a worm, mutate it, and then laser its gonads off, which increases the worm lifespan by 60 per cent’
Laura Deming is early for the interview in the restaurant in San Francisco’s hip Mission district, bent over a book. Bathed in the light streaming through the giant windows of the former factory, the venture capitalist is managing to concentrate despite the buzz of conversation.
Deming closes her copy of Encounters with Einstein by Werner Heisenberg. Girlish in a green, 1970s-style sundress, her youthful face masks a whirring brain that eats, drinks and sleeps science. “I think science is the most joyful experience ever. It’s the ultimate state of flow,” she says when I remark on her reading material.
At 25, 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”.
Anti-ageing science seems to be the latest gold rush in youth-obsessed Silicon Valley. Like long-ago emperors, some tech elites are pursuing immortality through unproven treatments. In February the US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that there was no clinical benefit to accepting blood transfusions from younger people. 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.
Deming suggests we think about infectious disease. “For such a long time, people viewed it as a required part of life. ‘Of course you’re going to die in your 20s or 30s from this random virus.’ You thought it was the natural course of life, until Pasteur and others said: ‘No, this doesn’t make sense.’ ”
Deming believes the same could happen in anti-ageing. “When you dive into the biology of ageing, there are so many different knobs; it’s like evolution dials it up or dials it down depending on which organism you are,” she says. “You’re like, ‘Oh wow, they set the knob at eight but you could turn it up to 11 or down to five if you wanted to’.”
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-ageing. The potential market is huge: the global population of people over the age of 80, which stands at 125 million, is predicted to rise to 434 million by 2050 – and the idea of viewing ageing as a disease is increasingly mainstream: last year the World Health Organisation added “old age” to The International Classifications of Diseases.
In 2011, Deming says, there were zero dollars going into anti-ageing; in the past couple of years, some $4 billion has been raised. About half of this is in Calico, Alphabet’s anti-ageing subsidiary, founded in 2013, while the rest is spread across about 20 deals a year, according to data from research firm CB Insights.
Longevity VC is still a small, early-stage fund, with only $37 million in assets under management. But companies that Deming invested in when they were start-ups have now collected more than $500 million in follow-on funding from investors including Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos and Thiel. Thiel has played a significant role in Deming’s career – she was one of his elite “fellows”, whom the venture capitalist pays $100,000 to drop out of college and “build new things” – although she is unforthcoming about their relationship.
Deming prefers testing her hypotheses to hyperbole. She wants to increase people’s “health span” – the number of healthy years of life – rather than aim at immortality. Her interest started when she was still a child, being homeschooled in New Zealand. “When I was a kid I wanted to work on the world’s most important problem,” she says. “Before I realised about ageing stuff, I actually wanted to work on cancer.” It was her father who cannily pointed out that the root cause of cancer was ageing.
Her parents had been planning to stay in New Zealand. Her American father was an investment manager, while her Korean mother raised the kids. Yet when Deming was only 12, she persuaded her family to move to the US so she could work with Prof Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, a world expert in the field of anti-ageing. How did she persuade her parents to make such a life-altering decision?
“In retrospect, that was such a sacrifice on their part,” says Deming. “They basically moved here that year. At that age, it never even registered, but yes, in retrospect, it was amazing.”
Kenyon had written a breakthrough paper showing that you could double the lifespan of a worm. When Deming emailed Kenyon asking if she could work in the lab, she chose well: Kenyon was exceptionally open-minded, having already co-authored a paper for the scientific journal Nature with another young prodigy. “I was super-lucky; nobody else would ever have let me do that,” says Deming.
When Deming arrived, she helped Kenyon in her efforts to create a “super worm”, adjusting all the different ways an organism can age. “The idea was to starve a worm, mutate it, and then laser its gonads off, which increases the worm lifespan by 60 per cent,” she says.
“Do we know if the same thing happens in humans?” I ask, startled. There’s some evidence that Korean eunuchs lived longer, says Deming – though she assures me she wouldn’t mess with her own fertility.
For someone so passionate about science, Deming’s decision to drop out of MIT to become a Thiel Fellow seems surprising. She was studying physics and insists it was the “most fun I’d ever had”. But she got frustrated with the slow pace of translating laboratory science into real-world applications.
She realised, she says, that the world is “hodge-podged together”. “I had assumed that it was a perfect structure for how to find the best science and translate it into drugs and practice,” she says. “Then I went and talked to a bunch of people whose job it is to do that and none of them knew anything about ageing research.”
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 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.”
Of course, there was another compelling young female college dropout, unafraid to think big about transforming the future of healthcare: Elizabeth Holmes, the now-disgraced founder of the blood-testing firm Theranos. Has anyone ever drawn a comparison between Deming and Holmes? “Erm ... I hope not, not to my knowledge, but maybe that has happened,” says Deming. “I saw the documentary on her the other night and I was, like, so sad. I can’t understand how you would do fraud.”
Red warning sign
Surely, though, as a young woman without a PhD, people must ask questions? “I used to walk in and it would be ‘You haven’t got a PhD, oh, not so good but ... ’ ” Now, she says, it is seen as an “active red warning sign”. “The only thing you can do is focus on the science. Then you can say, ‘Here’s what I think, you don’t have to trust me, but you can look at the science I’m talking to you about,’ ” she says.
So to the two trick questions of ageing.
The first: how much do you think you could increase lifespan? Many in the field overpromise, claiming that if you can double a worm’s life, you should be able to double a human’s.
“So the funny secret of age-related research is, I call it the banal, boring, future market. Everyone’s like, ‘What’s the magic bullet that’s going to make you live longer?’” According to Deming, there isn’t one. “The first medications may already be on the market, but they’re very small impacts and our first therapies likewise will bring maybe a couple of years at max.”
The second question: when will the advances come to fruition? Anti-ageing proselytisers often reach for the figure of 10 years – just enough time to convince their audiences that it will benefit them. “When I was a kid I really dreamed about helping my grandparents, helping my parents, and I would love to do that. But I think being very scientifically honest, it would be hard to say that’s definitely going to be possible,” she says, moderating her usual effusiveness.
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,” she says. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s still being figured out, and I think a lot of things will fail.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019