Audacious Business Ideas? Let's Talk About Trying to Cheat Death
When Google announced its new startup last fall--the one dedicated to reversing aging or extending life or solving death, however you want to put it--it was met with a sense of awe from the public.
Leading the chorus of wonder, TIME's cover loudly asked, "Can Google Solve Death?" Its exclusive interview with Google CEO Larry Page made it clear: they were going to try. Not out of Google itself, but through a Google-born startup called Calico.
The only thing is, this business of reversing, slowing, or otherwise solving aging has been around for a while. A number of startups have taken on these issues since late last century. In fact, the case can be made, this has been an industry (ever heard of a thing called medicine?) since the dawn of time.
But unlike in some other industries, this is one space where smaller companies don't mind seeing an entrant as big as Google drive in and park itself where they've been working for years. This isn't like Barnes and Noble destroying your neighborhood bookstore. Instead, it's a great example of when it makes sense to embrace a Goliath. Google's spotlight brings with it a sense of credibility and legitimacy--and hopefully, a groundswell of new research--that has long eluded those committed to ending the effects of aging.
Struggling for Legitimacy
One company that has been pursuing this goal for a while is Sierra Sciences, based in Nevada. Founded by Dr. Bill Andrews, a renowned researcher who Popular Science once dubbed "The Man Who Would Stop Time," Sierra has been operating since 1999. Its research focuses on the telomere--a region of DNA at the end of the chromosomes that some experiments show is closely related to the aging process.
Sierra spokesman Jon Cornell says when Google entered it the field, it was good news for everybody in it. "As far as we're concerned, Calico will bring not only a wealth of data, but awareness and legitimacy, to anti-aging science," he says. "That's a hurdle that's been tough to get over, and we couldn't be happier that it's happening."
Indeed, where there's awareness of aging research, skepticism abounds.
This skepticism is reasonable from a cultural perspective. Notwithstanding the potential effects an aging "solution" would have on our understanding of life, death, reality, and the world, there's a long history of swindling based on the promise of immortality. Think of the tales of the Elixir for Life or the Fountain of Youth. Humans are well-conditioned at this point to think of defeating aging as utter fantasy.
Even today, there are plenty of organizations selling products or services on the promise of defeating aging. (Dr. Stephen Barrett, who runs the website QuackWatch, tells Inc. that a good, if simplistic, rule of thumb in judging the legitimacy of these organizations is to differentiate between those whose focus is research and those who are currently trying to hawk stuff directly to consumers.) One small research company declined to comment for this article because it felt it had unfairly been lumped in with less legitimate organizations in past dealings with the press.
Other life extension organizations and communities focus on things other than age-related diseases and regenerative medicine. Those include cryogenics organizations, which freeze people so as to awaken them later) or the Singularity community, some of the members of which propose that human immortality will occur through the power of machines. These fields might seem a little too sci-fi for the general public.
On top of all that, such open-ended research can be a tough sell for startups trying to approach investors. The payoff--if there is one--won't come for years. Founders Fund, the Silicon Valley-based VC firm that aims to invest in audacious startups, is one of the few firms that has been willing to take a chance in this space. The firm put $500,000 into Halcyon Molecular, a startup working on DNA sequencing, but the startup shut down in 2012 reportedly due to a lack of funding.
Despite Halcyon's failure, Founders Fund partner Luke Nosek says the firm hasn't lost its enthusiasm for the anti-aging industry, which he calls a "huge" opportunity. The firm is still investing in biotechs, including some with similar goals. Nosek cites Silicon Valley startup Emerald Therapeutics, though wouldn't reveal the company's goal because Emerald is doing research in stealth mode. Nosek says his team learned from its experience with Halcyon and now wants to see a more balanced approach from startups in the biotech space, with organizational and scientific expertise working in lockstep. And, he says, they should be set up to achieve short-term milestones on their way to long-term goals.
For Sierra, almost any kind of attention in this space is a positive. Especially the attention that comes attached to a giant like Google.
"What's different about Google is that [it has] a proven track record," Sierra's Cornell says. "They said they were going to create a street view of every major city, and they did. They said they were going to create augmented reality glasses, and they did. They said they were going to design a driverless car, and they did. So when a company known to deliver gets into a field like this, people are much less likely to think there’s any quackery involved."
Mike Kope, CEO of the influential nonprofit Sens Research Foundation, agrees. Sens's focus differs from Sierra's--its interests are more intwined with preventative solutions to the natural decay that comes with aging--but he thinks the entire industry benefits from Google's arrival." It brings a lot of attention, a company that will be looking at age-related diseases as a comprehensive issue." (Google has not yet said exactly what its goals in the life extension space will be, except that aging and age-related diseases are in its crosshairs.)
The Moral Question
Still, for some, the legitimacy and credibility of the research might not be the main issue. The idea of defeating aging also calls into question global or even moral questions. That's something Kope, the Sens CEO, can't quite get his head around. "Are physicians supposed to say, 'You have cancer, we have a cure, but you have a statistical duty to suffer from it?'" he said, referencing concerns about overpopulation should life extension research reach its goals.
And that, in some ways, redirects the question. As audacious as defeating aging sounds, how crazy of an idea is it really? Consider that the average U.S. life expectancy has almost doubled since 1880. Kope points out that society has taken little issue with knocking out infectuous diseases, like tuberculosis and pneumonia. So why should age-related diseases (think cancer or heart disease, or less deadly ailments like cataracts) carry a stigma?
With Google joining the fray, companies like Sierra and organizations across the world hope the idea might not carry that stigma much longer.