A New Spin, But the Old “Only the Rich!” Trope is Still Fallacious
SENSible Question: Exceptionally wealthy people like Jeff Bezos, Sam Altman of YCombinator and ChatGPT fame, Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the private investors behind ARCH Venture Partners have made huge investments into longevity therapeutics startups. Isn’t there a risk that they will hoard these therapies for themselves?
This is a surprising twist on a similar question that we often used to get in the first decades of this century, when serious work on rejuvenation biotechnology was still a backwater of biomedical research but was just starting to get public attention (in no small part due to the efforts of cofounder Dr. Aubrey de Grey). Back then, the people raising the specter of exclusive access by a privileged few were coming at the issue from a very different place and insisted on a very different “solution” to the problem they imagined.
Back then, the very idea that scientists could develop powerful medicines to intervene in the degenerative aging process and abundantly extend healthy life was news to many people, and it sparked public and political controversy. Some people were just instinctively skeptical about whether and how much degenerative aging could be beaten back by medical science. That’s an understandable reaction when a person first hears about medical intervention in aging: hucksters and gurus have promised their customers and disciples one cure for aging after another for as long as we have written language, but longevity quacks continued sliding into disease, debility, and death with age on the same schedule they always have.
But others were not just skeptical, but hostile to the very idea of developing longevity therapeutics. Such people seemed willing to throw out any conceivable objection they could throw in the path of the rising dark horse of longevity science — even if they had to simultaneously argue for objections that were mutually exclusive!
A classic example: some would first argue that only wealthy people would be able to afford such therapies, raising the specter of a widening gap in health and life expectancy as a privileged few lived for centuries or more while life expectancy stagnated for the masses. And yet the same people would object that longevity therapies would lower death rates so much that the global population would explode, leading to resource shortages and other environmental challenges.
By raising both objections at once, those earlier critics revealed that they weren’t actually serious about either. To see why, let us set aside the many individual reasons why pointing to overpopulation as a reason not to pursue longevity therapeutics doesn’t stand up to reasoning. (We’ll briefly list some of the flawed objection-specific reasons in a footnote at the end of this post).
Ignoring all of those salient points, let’s consider the plausibility of the two objections as a package for a moment. On the one hand, these critics would argue that only fabulously wealthy people will be able to get their hands on these medicines. But at the same time, they would raise concerns that these medicines would trigger a catastrophic rise in the human population, resulting in resource constraints and ecological damage.
But there are currently eight billion people living on this earth, and every single day, 134 million new people are born, while over 67 million people die. So how can a life-saving medicine possibly drive massive population growth over and above that imbalance if the only people able to use it are the tiny fraction of the population wealthy and connected enough to access it? (And the fraction of such people is even smaller than that suggests, since by their very nature, longevity therapeutics almost exclusively reduce the risk of death in people aged 50 and older, so there will be no demographic effect for decades no matter who is using them).
These kinds of mutually-contradictory positions suggest that those earlier critics were not arriving at these supposed worries by dispassionately reasoning out scenarios in a spirit of curiosity and deep moral concern. Instead, they were coming to their stated objections after the fact, when their underlying hostility has very different motivations — such as the complex variation of terror management theory that Dr. de Grey refers to as “pro-aging trance.”
Flip the Script and the Plot Still Doesn’t Hang Together
These earlier questioners appeared to raise the specter of billionaire medicine hoarders because real anti-aging medicines would strike too close to their personal existential implications. Today, however, the valence of the worry is reversed. We are instead hearing concerns about a wealthy elite of investors hoarding longevity therapeutics from people who passionately and impatiently yearn for the dawn of such medicines. Their worry is much more direct and transparent: if only a well-connected few have access to rejuvenation biotechnologies, they and their loved ones may be shut out.
This new version of the medicine-hoarding worry is more reasonable on its face — and unlike the earlier version, it’s grounded in something that’s actually happening. Wealthy investors are making big bets in the longevity biotech industry, including core “damage-repair” therapies like SENS Research Foundation’s own spinouts, cellular reprogramming (Altos Labs, Retro Biosciences), extracellular matrix repair (Elastrin), and the plethora of senolytic startups.
Most of our supporters cheer these successful “longbio” investors on, as they understand that having well-capitalized longevity biotech startups backed by people who are deeply and personally committed to their success will bring longevity therapeutics to the market faster. But in a world where our politics and economics so often get reduced to zero-sum games, it’s understandable that a few prolongevists start to worry that wealthy investors might intend to scoop up the results of their investments in a way that would shut out the rest of us. And any such worry is doubtless amped up by the neverending stream of lazy pop-press puff pieces that resentfully portray these various longevity therapeutics investors as selfish “lifespan monopolists.”
But this worry dissipates when you remember things you already implicitly know about how tech investment works in the real world. Of course all the early investors in longevity biotech are wealthy people: that’s the way it is in all biotech and high-tech startups. In fact, it’s essentially a legal requirement, in addition to being a practical one. In the critical early high-risk/high-reward window of investment by angel investors and venture capital, hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars are needed to ante up to the table, and companies aren’t yet subject to the disclosure regulations and other investor protections that publicly-traded shares require. Because of the high risks involved, SEC regulations require that one be an “accredited investor” before putting money in at this stage — meaning people who won’t be financially ruined if the company tanks and they lose their entire investment.
Ordinary, middle-class retail investors whose retirement savings take the form of mutual funds and/or their homes (if they’re lucky) only come on the scene when a company has already established itself well enough to launch an IPO — meaning that it begins selling ordinary shares on a regular, highly-regulated stock exchange like the NASDAQ. At that point, you won’t hear the names of a company’s investors precisely because they aren’t public figures and their stakes in the company won’t be dominant.
It’s not surprising, then, that wealthy people are making the big bets on longevity biotechnology startups — because that’s how early-stage technology and biotech companies always get funded.
There’s another reason not to worry that wealthy investors will somehow restrict access to longevity therapeutics: doing so would ruin their investment! What investor wants to limit the sales of the products into whose development he or she has sunk a large chunk of their wealth? If anything, drug developers are constantly on the lookout for additional uses and users for their products, just like producers of any other product sold into a marketplace — sometimes to the point of taking it too far by encouraging their use by people and for conditions in which they aren’t safe, aren’t known to be effective, or are medically unnecessary. (Of course, inappropriate prescription isn’t likely to be a major problem with longevity therapeutics, since by their nature they are therapies that will benefit everyone middle-aged are older).
And wealthy people have also ploughed nearly all the early-stage investment money into startups working on breakthroughs that will benefit all of humanity collectively rather than one user at a time, such as direct air-capture of carbon dioxide, next-generation nuclear power technologies, and energy storage technologies. Bill Gates’ aggressive zero-carbon tech investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures is not only led and funded by the Microsoft co-founder himself, but also includes more than two dozen of the world’s wealthiest as investors and Board members. Indeed, most of BEV’s investors also made their fortunes in technology, including Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Hasso Plattner of SAP, Vinod Khosla, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and Shopify’s Tobias Lütke and Fiona McKean.
These investors certainly want to make a profit, and they will also benefit personally from a more stable climate in the future than under the baseline scenario. But having a direct air capture machine running on their summer home will only benefit them or anyone else if companies and governments deploy them widely and aggressively.
And remember, not all of the “investments” that high net-worth individuals are making into rejuvenation research are even going into companies. To use our own case as an example, a large percentage of SENS Research Foundation’s research has been funded by major philanthropic donations by wealthy technology investors and founders like Michael Greve of Kizoo Technology Ventures; Ethereum inventor and deployer Vitalik Buterin; Peter Thiel; the untimely-lost stock broker and venture capitalist Paul F. Glenn; Galaxy Digital founder and CEO Michael Novogratz; aerospace entrepreneur (and later Oisín Biotechnology cofounder) Gary Hudson; and numerous Silicon Valley success stories — notably social networking innovator Brian Liao (currently Chair of SRF’s Board), SpamArrest founder Brian Cartmell, software and clean energy entrepreneur Ryan Scott, and Michael Antonov of Oculus Rift.
All have dipped into their own substantial resources to provide immediate grants, long-term research funding commitments, and matching grants and challenges that empower middle-class donors to leverage their donations.
The major SRF donors recognized above are all tech investors and founders — and now that a real longevity biotech industry has emerged, they have also become bullish investors in this dawning new tech sector. But unlike with VC investments, philanthropic donations don’t come with any ownership of the resulting companies or their products. At perhaps the extreme end of this spectrum, a group of tech investors made a major joint donation to expand TRIAD, the “clinical trial” of rapamycin as an anti-aging agent in dogs. Rapamycin is, of course, a generic drug; thus, no matter how successful the results are, no new private company can put it in a private walled garden. Instead, the payback for longevity philanthropists will be to hasten the day when proven rejuvenation biotechnologies are available for everyone.
As a BBC journalist recently wrote in a somewhat rambling introduction to her reporting on the excitement around longevity therapeutics,
On my longevity learning mission, my expectations were upturned. I’d seen the sensationalist headlines, suggesting tech billionaires lounging on their yachts, deliberating over whether they fancied saving the world, going to space, or “curing” ageing.
This wasn’t the reality I saw. The wealthy have been giving money to medical research for years. This is just a new generation of wealth, and a potential new specialism of medicine.
Those of us of more modest means should no more fear that well-resourced investors are going to lock away the supply of the longevity medicines their money helped develop than we worried in the past that they would stockpile all the iPhones, electric cars, continuous glucose monitors, or new medicines for specific diseases that they have funded in the critical startup stage over the last twenty years.
Instead, we should cheer them on, because a well-funded longevity biotech sector is a critical part of the ecosystem that will deliver these therapies to all of us, and bring longevity escape velocity and the end of aging as quickly as possible.
Footnote: Overpopulation is a Weak Argument Against Rejuvenation Biotechnology
Raising overpopulation as a reason not to pursue medical therapies that would keep people young and healthy doesn’t stand up to reasoning. Among the reasons for this are that birth rates and child and infant mortality are more important drivers of population growth than deaths in later decades of life, and that the relationship between population size and environmental constraints is more complicated than simple numbers. Let’s even put aside the fact that even if we had a comprehensive suite of longevity therapeutics sufficient for us to reach longevity escape velocity (LEV) tomorrow, we wouldn’t have any meaningful shift in the world population, the number of living centenarians, or new longevity record holders for decades, simply because it would take that long for the first people to benefit from these therapies to live long enough for any of these things to happen. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that in order to avert the worst impacts of anthropogenic climate change, we’ll need to have already substantially switched over to carbon-free energy long before the point at which these consequences of extended healthy human lifespan could even occur, making any effect of a rising population even more of a distraction from the real challenges we face.
For present purposes, we can even put aside the larger moral reason to reject fear of overpopulation as a reason not to develop longevity therapeutics: that it is unconscionable to suggest that we forbid scientists from developing therapies to save people from sliding into debilitating heart disease, terrible cancers, identity-robbing dementias, and disabling sarcopenia and osteoporosis for almost any conceivable reason, let alone one that can be addressed by other technological and sociopolitical means. It is clearly morally unacceptable to leave people and their families to suffer and die from these and other horrors of aging as mere collateral damage in a passive-aggressive neglect of launching an aggressive scientific and social assault on those high-death-rate conditions of the sort that we also mount against smallpox, uncontrolled measles and polio, or cholera epidemics (which similarly have already greatly increased the human population).