Peter Thiel is one of those investors. Thiel, the idiosyncratic Facebook investor and PayPal founder who recently paid 20 kidsto drop out of college and start companies, was the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker that dissected a number Thiel's quirks, including his ardent libertarianism and his aversion to seatbelts, and, perhaps most outstandingly, his belief that with the right investments, he might just be able to escape death. Back in 2006, Thiel gave Cambridge anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey $3.5 million under the auspices of the Methusaleh Foundation, a non-profit headquartered in Springfield, Virgina, that awards scientists who are working on life-extension therapies. "Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead," Thiel told The New Yorker.
In 2010, Thiel and his partners at Founders Fund, a Bay Area venture capital firm, invested $500,000 in Halcyon Molecular, a biotech start-up whose 28-year-old founder has a "dream to create a world free from cancer and aging."
To understand the fund's investment, you have to appreciate what Founders Fund is—or, more specifically, what it is not.
"These are not guys who care about an extra million dollars," says Brian Singerman, a partner at Founders Fund along with Thiel. "These are guys who wanted to do something amazing for the world."
Singerman, an early employee at Google who founded the iGoogle team, came to Founders Fund after having what he describes as an "epic six hour epic dinner with Sean Parker." Parker, an executive general partner in the firm, recruited Singerman shortly after.
Equal parts brilliant and idealistic, Singerman is adamant that aging is a problem that can be solved. The fund's portfolio has invested in about 14 health and biotech companies all interested in solving life's ultimate problem: death.
"We have a company that's charged with curing all viral disease, we have a company that's charged with curing several types of cancer," he says. "These are not things that are incremental approaches. It's all fine and good to have a drug that extends life by a certain amount of months or makes living with a disease easier. That's not what we're looking for. We are not looking for incremental change. We are looking for absolute cures in anything we do."
Singerman, who graduated from Stanford, believes there are two basic elements of curing aging: first, you have to cure the stuff that kills you. The second part, of course, is figuring out the processes by which the body deteriorates. Finding complete, fast, and cheap DNA sequencing methods are a main focus of the fund.
"I'm not going to say we're going to cure aging before next week," he says. "That's just silly. But do I think that within the next 10 years we'll have the cure for several forms of cancer? I absolutely do. Do I think that in the next 10 years all forms of viral disease will be wiped out? Absolutely, we have a shot. Do I think that we're going to stop the aging process within the next 10 years? No, but do I think we'll have a much better understanding of how to get to that point? Absolutely."
Singerman is not alone in his quest for immortality.
Gregory Bonafiglio, the co-founder and managing partner of Proteus Venture Partners, says the baby-boom generation is having a profound impact on the market, especially when it comes to regenerative medicine.
"When you talk about anti-aging, what I hear, and what a lot of people hear, are aesthetic things like wrinkle creams and hair re-growth," Bonafiglio says. "The truth of the matter, though, is that the process of aging is one that involves significant deterioration of all organ systems. Whether it's Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, all of these things are related to the aging process. And as the demographic in the U.S. begins to age, that's a major force that's driving the market for the field."
Proteus, which has partners located in Boston, Cambridge, and Silicon Valley, has gone so far as to call regenerative medicine and anti-aging the "Internet of healthcare," meaning it's poised for some historic investment boom. The firm, which focuses its investments in regenerative medicine, invests solely in start-ups that are working on cell therapy and tissue engineering, targeting conditions such as prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease, bone regrowth, and skin repair.
By its calculations, the current market for regenerative medicine is about $1.6 billion. But by the year 2025, they predict that number may surge to about $20 billion. Likewise, revenue generated from regenerative medicine start-ups generated some $130 million in 2001 — by 2010 it has ballooned to more than $1.5 billion in revenue. The company also notes that there are about 400 regenerative products on the market today, and 600 more in development. Bonafigli, who sits on a number of scientific research boards including the International Society for Stem Cell Research and the International Society for Cellular Therapy, says the amount of clinical activity in this field has exploded in the last five years. "The entire field is growing," he says.