Laura Deming: ‘I wanted to work on the world’s most important problem’
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I arrive at the vast, noisy dining room of the Tartine Manufactory a couple of minutes early, but Laura Deming is already there, bent over a book. Bathed in the light streaming through the giant windows of the former factory in San Francisco’s hipster Mission district, the venture capitalist is managing to concentrate despite the buzz of conversation.
Greeting me with an open smile, Deming closes her copy of Encounters with Einstein by Werner Heisenberg. Girlish in a green, 1970s-style sundress, her youthful face masks a whirring brain that eats, drinks and sleeps science. “I think science is the most joyful experience ever. It’s the ultimate state of flow,” she says when I remark on her reading material.
At 25, Deming has already achieved more in her chosen field, anti-ageing, than many people twice her age. At 12, she was researching the biology of ageing in the laboratory of one of the world’s leading scientists; at 14 she went to study physics at MIT, only to drop out at 17 and start a venture capital fund under the guidance of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Aubrey de Grey, the English gerontologist who has suggested that humans might live to be 1,000, calls Deming an “utter genius” for her scientific and investment “brilliance”.
Anti-ageing science seems to be the latest gold rush in youth-obsessed Silicon Valley. Like long-ago emperors, some tech elites are pursuing immortality through unproven treatments. In February, the US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that there was no clinical benefit to accepting blood transfusions from younger people. There is a long history of charlatans selling the cure to getting old.
I sit down opposite Deming at a stripped-back beechwood table. The restaurant was opened by the couple behind the city’s Tartine bakery three years ago, and its bread-heavy menu has become surprisingly popular with wholesome San Franciscans.
I immediately admit that I had been concerned that Deming’s quest to extend life might entail some unpleasant dietary restrictions. “That’s probably the most common question I get,” she says. “And then I inhale a block of dark chocolate and they’re like, ‘You know what . . . ’ ”
Deming is no biohacker; she isn’t fiddling with diet, exercise or pills to add an extra year or two to her life. Her ambition is far greater: to accelerate anti-ageing science so that everyone can live healthier lives for longer. To that end, she founded the Longevity Fund in 2011, when she was still a teenager, to invest in biotech companies making treatments for age-related diseases.
I tell her I’m not sure that everyone thinks that the fact of ageing — rather than its symptoms — is an obvious problem that needs addressing. Deming suggests I think about infectious disease. “For such a long time, people viewed it as a required part of life. Of course you’re going to die in your twenties or thirties from this random virus. You thought it was the natural course of life, until Pasteur and others said: ‘No, this doesn’t make sense.’ ”
Deming believes the same could happen in anti-ageing. “When you dive into the biology of ageing, there are so many different knobs; it’s like evolution dials it up or dials it down depending on which organism you are,” she said. “You’re like, ‘Oh wow, they set the knob at eight but you could turn it up to 11 or down to five if you wanted to’.”
Deming comes across as an intensely curious person, more interested in asking than answering questions. By the end of the meal, I will have relived my university application, detailed what a Sunday shift on a newspaper is like and laid out my plans for the next 10 years.
We order drinks — a blood orange fruit shrub for me, rooibos tea for her — and I push her to decide what to eat before we launch back into what I hope will be my questions. She suggests sharing the beet hummus. When I tell her she can get as much as she wants on the FT, she decides to order a small avocado toast and a grilled cheese sandwich. I’m tempted by the spiced lentils with a soft egg and crispy duck leg carnitas.
While large pharmaceutical companies stick to funding research into more obviously lucrative areas — cancer, cardiovascular disease — Silicon Valley’s adventurous investors are starting to bet on anti-ageing. The potential market is huge — the global population of people over the age of 80, which currently stands at 125m, is predicted to rise to 434m by 2050 — and the idea of viewing ageing as a disease is increasingly mainstream: last year the World Health Organisation added “old age” to The International Classifications of Diseases.
In 2011, Deming says, there were zero dollars going into anti-ageing; in the past couple of years, some $4bn has been raised. About half of this is in Calico, Alphabet’s anti-ageing subsidiary, founded in 2013, while the rest is spread across about 20 deals a year, according to data from research firm CB Insights.
Longevity VC is still a small, early-stage fund, with only $37m in assets under management. But companies that Deming invested in when they were start-ups have now collected more than $500m in follow-on funding from investors including Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos and Thiel. Thiel has played a significant role in Deming’s career — she was one of his elite “fellows”, whom the venture capitalist pays $100,000 to drop out of college and “build new things” — although she is unforthcoming about their relationship.
Deming prefers testing her hypotheses to hyperbole. She wants to increase people’s “health span” — the number of healthy years of life — rather than aim at immortality. Her interest started when she was still a child, being homeschooled in New Zealand. “When I was a kid I wanted to work on the world’s most important problem,” she says. “Before I realised about ageing stuff, I actually wanted to work on cancer.” It was her father who cannily pointed out that the root cause of cancer was ageing.
I wonder if he regretted sending his child on a quest that led to the whole family moving continent. Her parents had been planning to stay in New Zealand. Her (American) father was an investment manager, while her (Korean) mother raised the kids. Yet when Deming was only 12, she persuaded her family to move to the US so she could work with Professor Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, a world expert in the field of anti-ageing. How did she persuade her parents to make such a life-altering decision?
“In retrospect, that was such a sacrifice on their part,” says Deming. “They basically moved here that year. At that age, it never even registered but yes, in retrospect, it was amazing.”
Kenyon had authored a breakthrough paper showing that you could double the lifespan of a worm. When Deming emailed Kenyon asking if she could work in the lab, she chose well: Kenyon was exceptionally open-minded, having already co-authored a paper for the scientific journal Nature with another young prodigy. “I was super-lucky; nobody else would ever have let me do that,” says Deming.
When Deming arrived, she helped Kenyon in her efforts to create a “super worm”, adjusting all the different ways an organism can age. “The idea was to starve a worm, mutate it, and then laser its gonads off, which increases the worm lifespan by 60 per cent,” she says.
“Do we know if the same thing happens in humans?” I ask, startled. There’s some evidence that Korean eunuchs lived longer, says Deming — though she assures me she wouldn’t mess with her own fertility.
The waitress arrives and I’m glad we’ve already prepared an order. The only remaining question is bread and butter or flatbread and olive oil. “Which is better?” Deming asks. The waitress prefers the flatbread so we pick that.
For someone so passionate about science, Deming’s decision to drop out of MIT to become a Thiel Fellow seems surprising. She was studying physics and insists it was the “most fun I’d ever had”. But she got frustrated with the slow pace of translating laboratory science into real-world applications.
She realised, she says, that the world is “hodge-podged together”. “I had assumed that it was a perfect structure for how to find the best science and translate it into drugs and practice,” she says. “Then I went and talked to a bunch of people whose job it is to do that and none of them knew anything about ageing research.”
The beet hummus arrives, the same vibrant shade as the waitress’s lipstick. When Deming decided to start raising money to get anti-ageing research out of the lab, she was still too young to sign the paperwork — her father had to do it on her behalf. She received some advice from Thiel but confesses that she really did not know what she was doing. “You’d Google ‘How to start a venture capital fund’ and there were just no articles,” she says, amazed.
For the first two years of the fund, Deming tried to sell investors on the “science and the humanitarian issues at stake”. “Honestly, for two years I gave the same pitch of, here’s a $20bn market and here’s all the people who are dying, can someone help them? And everyone was like, ‘that’s amazing, you’re such a good person’, and nobody invested,” she laughs. She learnt that she needed to link her passion for the cause to a “very concrete business case”.
The fund’s first investment, in Unity Biotechnology, helped her to do that. Unity is developing a drug that targets senescent cells — decrepit cells that refuse to die. If it works, the drug could be used to treat age-related diseases such as osteoarthritis, eye diseases and pulmonary diseases. Unity went public last year and now has a valuation of more than $350m. “Having a concrete case to show [potential investors] . . . that was what brought it together.”
Our main courses arrive, and the plates clatter as the waitress tries to squeeze them on to our tiny table. My spicy lentils and duck strikes the right balance between comfort and adventure. I eye Deming’s grilled cheese and worry that it looks a little overdone.
Now I have my sustenance, I bring up another compelling young female college dropout, unafraid to think big about transforming the future of healthcare: Elizabeth Holmes, the now-disgraced founder of the blood-testing firm Theranos. Has anyone ever drawn a comparison between Deming and Holmes? “Erm . . . I hope not, not to my knowledge, but maybe that has happened,” says Deming. “I saw the documentary on her the other night and I was, like, so sad. I can’t understand how you would do fraud.”
Surely, though, as a young woman without a PhD, people must ask questions? “I used to walk in and it would be ‘You haven’t got a PhD, oh, not so good but . . .’” Now, she says, it is seen as an “active red warning sign”. “The only thing you can do is focus on the science. Then you can say, here’s what I think, you don’t have to trust me, but you can look at the science I’m talking to you about,” she says.
I admit that I checked up on her before the interview, worried about writing a puff piece on the next Elizabeth Holmes. Her investments have well-known scientific advisers, unlike Theranos, which had a board packed with ageing politicians such as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Academics in the field were mainly positive about Deming’s investments — and one told me, quite accurately, that I would get a headache from how fast she speaks and thinks. “That’s really funny,” she says, unperturbed by my research on her.
Those who were less familiar with Deming’s work told me to ask her the two trick questions of ageing.
The first was: how much do you think you could increase lifespan? Many in the field overpromise, claiming that if you can double a worm’s life, you should be able to double a human’s.
“So the funny secret of age-related research is, I call it the banal, boring, future market. Everyone’s like, ‘what’s the magic bullet that’s going to make you live longer?’” According to Deming, there isn’t one. “The first medications may already be on the market, but they’re very small impacts and our first therapies likewise will bring maybe a couple of years at max.”
The second question was: when will the advances come to fruition? Anti-ageing proselytisers often reach for the figure of 10 years — just enough time to convince their audiences that it will benefit them. “When I was a kid I really dreamt about helping my grandparents, helping my parents, and I would love to do that. But I think being very scientifically honest, it would be hard to say that’s definitely going to be possible,” she says, moderating her usual effusiveness.
Deming passes my bare-bones test — but I’m sure many other questions remain.
Deming’s biggest fear is the hype cycle: what if a few early anti-ageing trials flop, and the money goes away? “That gives me a lot of fear, because it’s a field that is still very early,” she says, nibbling on her avocado toast. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s still being figured out, and I think a lot of things will fail.”
I finished my food long ago. Deming has only taken three bites of her grilled cheese, either from bread or word overload. As the waitress brings back the leftovers in a box, she asks me what I’ve changed my mind about in the past five years. I turn the question back on her. “I think I used to believe in the great man theory of history,” she says. But she says the history of science shows that several people often have the same idea at the same time.
“Artists always talk about being conduits for something, but scientists are the same thing. They think they’re the only ones but almost always the ideas were at the point where someone would have thought of them,” she says.
I ask if she thought she would be the “great man” five years ago. “I think that was my image of what a scientist was — working in isolation, you get your name on a law, and aren’t you great for having done that?”
Now, she will just be grateful for whatever role Longevity VC can play in pushing forward the field. “Even if we don’t end up getting a drug to market ourselves that’s got Longevity stamped on it, if we just keep pushing along with what we’re doing, we’ll help someone else do that.”
Like many child prodigies, her maturity is catching up with her expertise. She heaves her books into her backpack, picks up her half-eaten sandwich and heads back to work.
Hannah Kuchler is the FT’s US pharma and biotech correspondent
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