Silicon Valley Investor Backs $1 Million Prize to End Death
By Ashlee Vance
Life is like a box of chocolates, and that bugs the heck out of Silicon Valley.
On Tuesday a group of doctors, investors, and researchers announced the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. The latest attempt to crack the code of life, it will award $1 million to teams of scientists that demonstrate a reversal of the aging process in test animals. About 10 teams have already signed up to compete for the prize, including researchers from nearby Stanford University, as well as the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and Washington University in St. Louis. “We spend more than $2 trillion per year on health care and do a pretty good job helping people live longer, but ultimately you still die,” says Dr. Joon Yun, a doctor, investor and the main backer of the prize. “The better plan is to end health care altogether.”
Mankind has spent centuries obsessing about ending aging for obvious reasons. Of late, Silicon Valley has emerged as one of the places most interested in the topic. Google (GOOG), for example, has created a biotech research house called Calico to develop therapies that may increase lifespans. It also employs Ray Kurzweil, who has proposed downloading one’s brain into a machine as a means of cheating death. And just last month, a Hyatt hotel in Silicon Valley played host to the Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference at which top scientists discussed “emerging regenerative medicine solutions for the diseases of aging.”
Participants will be able to review the rules and register to compete until January 15 of next year. A number of research groups were consulted about the effort ahead of its official announcement and have already signed on to have a go at winning the prize. Their approaches include experiments with stem cells, gene modification, and electrical stimulation, all aimed at tweaking HRV.
Yun, a radiologist by training, served on the clinical staff at Stanford Hospital. He’s also spent about 15 years working as an investor at Palo Alto Investors, a hedge fund with more than $1 billion in assets that has focused on health-care companies. The firm is known for making on average one large investment per year. One of its recent successes was InterMune, a biotech company that Roche (ROG) just agreed to acquire for $8.3 billion in cash. Palo Alto Investors had put $200 million into the company.
Yun says his father-in-law recently passed away at the age of 68, and this, combined with conversations with his friends, inspired him to tackle aging. “I come from an old school Korean farming family where you were just expected to till the farms and die,” he says. “There was something grand and dignified in that. But after my wife’s father died of something pretty preventable, I asked myself, ‘Why am I waiting to do something about this?’”
The idea to offer a prize came from Yun’s nanny, who is an acquaintance of Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy. The Schmidts have sponsored, among other things, a $2 million prize to study the health of the ocean.
“Based on the rapid rate of biomedical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not if we can crack the aging code, but when will it happen,” says Keith Powers, the producer of the prize group. Yun has set aside a large chunk of money to fund not just this initial prize but subsequent attempts at solving the aging puzzle. “The prize is winnable, but I don’t think we will hit a grand slam on the first one,” he says. “I expect to be writing lots of checks.”
$1 MILLION PRIZE OFFERED TO HACK THE CODE OF AGING
A Stanford radiologist turned Silicon Valley investor is donating a $1 million prize for scientists who crack the code of aging.
By Kristen Sze
Monday, September 08, 2014
PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) — Would you like to win $1 million? That’s the prize money in a brand new contest that will be officially launched Tuesday in the Bay Area. Its goal is to keep us from aging. It’s the science version the television show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.”
“I’m donating a $1 million prize to hack the underlying code of aging,” Dr. Joon Yun, M.D., said.
Yun is the Stanford radiologist turned Silicon Valley investor who’s been pursuing the science of youth for 15 years. He hopes to turn his dream into reality by funding the PaloAltoPrize.com. Doctors, scientists, students and others with a bright idea are welcome to enter.
“The goal of the prize is to not only end aging, but be able to reverse aging, and be able to promote healthy longevity,” Yun said.
Imagine Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter maintaining his top athletic form or singer Beyonce holding on to her incredible beauty or you keeping your heart healthy and body limber all for years, or maybe decades longer than previously thought possible.
Ten teams have already entered to compete. Organizers of the contest hope they’ll get many more, from around the world, after the official launch.
“This is my lab. This is where we do a lot of different procedures to study brain function,” Stanford neurologist Dr. Jin Lee said.
Lee leads one of the teams.
Dr. Doris Taylor of the Texas Heart Institute leads another team. She said, “For years I’ve said aging is a failure of stem cells. When I heard about the prize, I said, ‘OK, it’s time to put up or shut up. Now you can prove it.'”
Yun says if they succeed, they could help us live longer, healthier lives and lower the crippling cost of healthcare. They may also help launch new industries, which is why Silicon Valley investors are watching this contest closely.
“It’s a long shot, but I’m cautiously optimistic that the science is already advanced enough and that this is the time to take the moon shot,” Yun said.
A moon shot worth $1 million to start with more prizes to come.
Silicon Valley launches another bid to ‘hack’ aging, cheat death
Dr. Brian Olshansky, middle, one of the competitors in the Palo Alto Longevity prize, from the University of Iowa Medical Center, answers questions during a panel discussion at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. (John Green/Bay Area News Group) ( JOHN GREEN )
SAN FRANCISCO — Ever wanted to stretch your life to Old Testament proportions? You may be in luck. A movement of Silicon Valley thinkers and entrepreneurs wants you to live as long as Jacob, who died at 147, and maybe even Noah, who made it to 950.
One year after Google created a company named Calico with the goal of extending human life, Menlo Park investor and Stanford-trained radiologist Joon Yun has launched a $1 million science competition with the lofty aim of “curing” the disease more commonly known as aging.
While Calico’s plan remains largely opaque, Yun has laid out specific criteria for the 11 teams that have already signed up to compete for the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which focuses on improving “homeostatic capacity,” or the ability of an organism to bounce back to normal in the face of stress.
Menlo Park resident Joon Yun announces the Palo Alto Longevity prize at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Yun, a doctor and investor is the main backer of the prize to to crack the code of life. (John Green/Bay Area News Group) ( JOHN GREEN )
At a swanky launch party this month in San Francisco, Yun declared aging an urgent problem, saying every day 100,000 people die unnecessarily of age-related illness. The Presidio gathering included proponents of life extension who believe the current limit on human life, roughly 120 years, can be pushed back several decades, or perhaps hundreds of years.
“Ultimately, I think we’ll crack the age code and we’ll hack aging,” Yun announced. “And if we do, not only will health care be transformed, but humanity. At that point we’ll have unlocked human capacity.”
The idea for the competition came from Yun’s daily life. As president of Palo Alto Investors, an investment fund targeting the health care sector, Yun gets an early look at innovative research. At the age of 46, he’s noticed the many small ways in which his own homeostatic capacity has degraded over time — for instance, recovering from a poor night’s sleep.
That same lack of resilience, Yun said, helps explain serious illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension — the body loses its ability to self-tune when its blood sugar or blood pressure gets too high.
Professional athlete Brandi Chastain speaks at a conference on aging in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. (John Green/Bay Area News Group) ( JOHN GREEN )
The Palo Alto Longevity Prize has two parts. Judges will give $500,000 to the first team that increases a small mammal’s heart rate variability to levels typical of a young adult. Heart rate variability is an indicator of autonomic nervous system health that decreases over time. They also will award $500,000 to the first team to extend the life of a test mammal by 50 percent beyond its life expectancy by restoring homeostatic capacity.
The competition has drawn well-credentialed researchers from across the country. One team is led by Doris Taylor, director of regenerative medical research at the Texas Heart Institute, a nonprofit arm of CHI St. Luke’s Health that focuses on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Taylor’s outfit will pursue stem cell therapy.
“Inflammation, stress (and) chronic disease equal aging,” she said in a video produced by prize organizers. “I believe we can intervene in all of those with stem cells.”
Even if human life could be extended tens or hundreds of years, there is disagreement over whether radical life extension is worth pursuing. Some critics wonder whether increased longevity would rob life of its meaning. Others say there are far more pressing problems to address, from hunger and infectious disease to climate change.
One of the chief critiques of life extension is that it would exacerbate global overpopulation. Mathis Wackernagel, president of the nonprofit Global Footprint Network, argues the planet is already overtaxed.
“Our demand on nature is already about 50 percent faster than nature can renew, and many on our planet legitimately need more resources in order to have a decent life,” said Wackernagel. “And we are still expanding by about 75 million people a year.”
Aubrey de Grey and Sonia Arrison, two leading advocates of life extension and advisers to the Palo Alto Prize, brush these concerns aside. De Grey, chief scientist for the SENS Research Foundation in Mountain View, argues humanity will solve resource scarcity through innovation. Arrison notes that the rate of global population expansion is slowing.
Arrison, a Palo Alto-based author and teacher, claims that increasing the healthy life span, by extending the sweet spot of adulthood that combines vigor with the wisdom of experience, will give the world’s best minds more time to innovate solutions to humanity’s problems.
One of Silicon Valley’s top crusaders against death is PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who has pledged at least $3.5 million to de Grey’s research and wrote the introduction to Arrison’s 2011 book on longevity.
Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, one of the tycoon’s investment funds, spoke at the launch. People are squeamish about major advances in biomedicine, he said, fearful of disrupting the natural order. But innovations that begin in controversy, such as in vitro fertilization, are accepted by succeeding generations.
“We find ourselves sitting on top of our own source code,” said Weinstein, referring to DNA. “We are being invited, either by a deity or by selection, to hack, to create, to collaborate, to join.”
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.
The $1 Million Race For The Cure To End Aging
The hypothesis is so absurd it seems as though it popped right off the pages of a science-fiction novel. Some scientists in Palo Alto are offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can end aging. “Based on the rapid rate of biomedical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not if we can crack the aging code, but when will it happen,” says director of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize Keith Powers.
It’s a fantastical idea: curing the one thing we will all surely die of if nothing else gets us before that. I sat down with Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation and co-author of “Ending Aging,” to discuss this very topic a few days back. According to him, ending aging comes with the promise to not just stop the hands of time, but to actually reverse the clock. We could, according to him, actually choose the age we’d like to exist at for the rest of our (unnatural?) lives. But we are far off from possibly seeing this happen in our lifetime, says de Grey. “With sufficient funding we have a 50/50 chance to getting this all working within the next 25 years, but it could also happen in the next 100,” he says.
If you ask Ray Kurzweil, life extension expert, futurist and part-time adviser to Google’s somewhat stealth Calico project, we’re actually tip-toeing upon the cusp of living forever. “We’ll get to a point about 15 years from now where we’re adding more than a year every year to your life expectancy,” he told the New York Times in early 2013. He also wrote in the book he co-authored with Terry Grossman, M.D., that “Immortality is within our grasp.” That’s a bit optimistic to de Grey (the two are good friends), but he’s not surprised this prize is coming out of Silicon Valley. “Things are changing here first. We have a high density of visionaries who like to think high.”
And he believes much of what Kurzweil says is true with the right funding. “Give me large amounts of money to get the research to happen faster,” says de Grey. He then points out that Google’s Calico funds are virtually unlimited. “Kurzweil asked Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] how much he had to work with and they said to let him know when he runs out of money and they’ll send more,” de Grey tells me.
Whether it’s 15, 25 or even 100 years off, we need to spur a revolution in aging research, according to Joon Yun, one of the sponsors of the prize. “The aim of the prize is to catalyze that revolution,” says Yun. His (very well-connected) nanny actually came up with the initial idea. She just happens to be an acquaintance of Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google’s Eric Schmidt. But it was the passing of Yun’s 68-year-old father-in-law and some conversations with his friends that got him thinking about how to take on aging as a whole.
The Palo Alto Prize is also working with a number of angel investors, venture capital firms, corporate venture arms, institutions and private foundations within Silicon Valley to create health-related incentive prize competitions in the future. This first $1 million prize comes from Yun’s own pockets.
The initial prize will be divided into two $500,000 awards. Half a million dollars will go to the first team to demonstrate that it can restore heart rate variability (HRV) to that of a young adult. The other half of the $1 million will be awarded to the first team that can extend lifespan by 50 percent. So far 11 teams from all over the world have signed up for the challenge.
All 11 teams are listed below for those interested in following along:
Doris Taylor, Ph.D.
Texas Heart Institute, Houston, TX
TEAM NAME: T.H.I. REGENERATIVE MEDICINE (approach: stem cells)
Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, NY
TEAM NAME: CAI LAB (approach: hypothalamic regulation)
Andreas Birkenfeld, M.D.
Charite University School of Medicine, Berlin, Germany
TEAM NAME: INDY (approach: gene modification)
Jin Hyung Lee, Ph.D.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
TEAM NAME: LEE LAB (approach: neuromodulation)
David Mendelowitz, Ph.D.
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
TEAM NAME: MENDELOWITZ LAB (approach: oxytocin)
Scott Wolf, M.D.
Mountain View, CA
TEAM NAME: VOLTS MEDICAL (approach: inflammatory tissues)
Irving Zucker, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE
TEAM NAME: ZUCKER LAB (approach: neuromodulation)
Brian Olshansky, M.D.
University of Iowa Medical Center, Iowa City, IA
TEAM NAME: IOWA PRO-AUTONOMIA (approach: not yet public)
William Sarill, M.A.
TEAM NAME: DECO (approach: pituitary hormones)
Steven Porges, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
TEAM NAME: POLYVAGAL SCIENCE
(approach: optimizing both the left & right vagal branches)
Shin-Ichiro Imai, M.D., Ph.D.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
TEAM NAME: IMAI LAB (approach: gene modification)