Silicon Valley Investor Backs $1 Million Prize to End Death
By Ashlee Vance | September 09, 2014
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.”
In the case of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, the antiaging focus will be studying and altering heart rate variability. HRV is the measure of the change in time from one heartbeat to the next. Instead of looking at a person’s average heart beat of, say, 60 beats per minute, HRV monitors performance at the next layer down, providing a better indicator of how a person is reacting to stress or injury. A $500,000 prize will go to a team that can take an older mammal and bring its HRV characteristics back to those of a young adult mammal; another $500,000 will go to a team that can extend an animal’s lifespan by 50 percent.
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.
According to Yun, the health-care system has not focused enough on restoring the body’s homeostatic capacity, its ability to operate at a healthy equilibrium. “Your intrinsic homeostasis erodes at 40,” he says. “Hangovers that used to last a day now last three days. Coughs drag on for months. You come off a roller coaster, and you feel awful, because you can’t self center and your blood vessels don’t recalibrate fast enough.” The goal with the prize would be to find a way to reverse these degrading processes and return the body to a more youthful state.
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.
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“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.”
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, CA. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.
$1 MILLION PRIZE OFFERED TO HACK THE CODE OF AGING
By: Kristen Sze | Monday, September 08, 2014
A Stanford radiologist turned Silicon Valley investor is donating a $1 million prize for scientists who crack the code of aging.
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.
You can find out more about the contest here: PaloAltoPrize.com | Map My News
The Palo Alto Prize: A ‘Moonshot’ at Increasing Longevity
Posted on byVICTORIA THORP
Tucked behind an unassuming door on University Avenue is the center of an effort that could significantly impact the life healthspan of human beings in the years to come. If that sounds hard to believe, then you haven’t met Dr. Joon Yun, the persuasive founder of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, who aims to enlist the brightest scientific minds in the world to address the fundamental question of how to prevent aging.
Dr. Joon Yu, Founder of the Palo Alto Prize photo courtesy of Forbes Magazine
Joon, a board certified radiologist who served on the clinical faculty of Stanford Hospital and has an M.D. from Duke University and an B.A. Harvard University, is president of Palo Alto Investors LLC, an investment management firm with over $1 billion invested in healthcare.
But beyond his credentials, Joon is a classic visionary who believes that the inexorable march towards old age, with all of its accompanying aches, pains and fatigue, is preventable. “My father was a leader in health care research for the World Bank and taught us the importance of community,” Joon explains. “We are calling this effort the Palo Alto Prize because Palo Alto has become an epicenter of global technology revolutions.”
What does it take to help the human body regain homeostasis?
The key to longevity, he says, is for human beings to maintain the homeostatic capacity of a young adult even as they age. Homeostatic capacity is the ability to maintain homeostasis, which is defined as “the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals, to maintain internal stability.” While homeostatic capacity is robust in our youth, we start to lose it as we get older, with particular decline in midlife. Anyone 40 or over who has tried to recover from an injury (or even a hangover) will relate to the how difficult it is to regain ‘internal stability’ in middle age compared to younger years. And the challenge of maintaining homeostasis increases as the years pile on.
To explore this idea, Joon conceived of an incentive prize like the X Prize, which would set an audacious goal and encourage the world’s smartest researchers to compete for a reward. He put up $1 million of his own money and enlisted Keith Powers, the former head of strategy for the X Prize Foundation, to help shape the incentives for drawing the teams of researchers to the Palo Alto Prize.
While $1 million might seem small in an area where start up companies are routinely valued upwards of $100 million, Powers explains in a video on the Palo Alto Prize website that the motivation of the scientific community is very different from Silicon Valley. “[Scientists] want to move discovery forward…for them, the money is not the goal but instead it provides a path to get there.”
Dr. Jin Hyun Lee, Stanford photo courtesy of Palo Alto Longevity Prize
And as evidence that the award amount is sufficient, when Joon started contacting leading scientists about the Palo Alto Prize in June of 2014, they leaped at the opportunity to get involved. There are now 14 teams from across the United States and Europe (including one led by Dr. Dr. Jin Hyung Lee at Stanford University), which are each approaching the question of how to help bodies maintain homeostasis from different disciplines, including bioengineering, genetics, neurology and more. View videos about the teams here.
Dr. David Mendelowitz, George Washington University photo courtesy of the Palo Alto Prize
Dr. David Mendelowitz, a professor of Pharmacology and Physiology who is leading a Palo Alto Prize team at George Washington University explains the appeal of the prize, saying, “As scientists, we like a challenge and the Palo Alto Prize is a catalyst for new work and new hypotheses of learning.”
In many ways, the Palo Alto Prize is in its infancy and the real news will unfold in September 2018 when the prize ends and Joon and his team of advisors, experts in medicine, biotech and venture capital evaluate the ideas that emerge. Joon has committed to provide additional prize incentives to continue the work past 2018 if there are promising avenues of research in longevity to pursue. He also lauds the efforts of Calico, the company started by Google to explore longevity, as it only helps the pursuit of knowledge to have many minds engaged.
What about the potential environmental issues on a planet where people routinely live 100 years or more? Joon is less worried. “Population studies show that when longevity goes up, so do education levels and income,” he says. “Plus if people begin living longer, they will care more about what the world will look like in the future – impact concerns will shift from being their children’s problem to being their problem.”