Is Amazon the destination for Longevity start-ups?

Longevity is fast becoming the distinct investment category we predicted; from apps to xenotransplantation, some $4bn has been poured into finding solutions for driving lifespan and healthspan, according to Laura Deming, founder of the Longevity Fund [1].

Longevity.Technology: The Big Four of the new golden age of tech (Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google) are all investors in longevity research. Google, under the umbrella of parent company Alphabet Inc’s anti-aging subsidiary Calico, is responsible for approximately half of the $4bn, however Amazon and its founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos have been increasingly active in the space. We’ve already identified that Amazon’s Alexa will be a key platform for independent living. As M&A will hot-up, will Amazon be the destination for many Longevity start-ups? We decided to take a look at where else Amazon is active. 

Back in 2013, Jeff Bezos was already hinting at a change of focus: “If your customer base is aging with you, then eventually you are going to become obsolete or irrelevant. You need to be constantly figuring out who are your new customers and what are you doing to stay forever young [2].”

And Bezos has done just that; Amazon’s retail dominance seems unshakeable (despite calls for investigations into its taxes [3] and regulation of its dominance [4]), but Bezos is not a man to rest on his laurels. In 2017 Amazon invested in Grail Inc, a Silicon Valley start-up that had, the year before, planted itself in the preventative medicine market with a position that the “cure” for most cancers won’t be a new drug, but news tests that will catch tumours at an early stage when they can still be successfully treated. Grail plans to do this by using “high-intensity” DNA sequencing to probe and screen blood samples for genetic material and biomarkers given-off by hidden tumours. Of course, this will require a huge amount of data processing and storage, which could be music to the ears of Amazon Web Services.

According to a 2015 report, by 2025, an anticipated 100 million and 2 billion human genomics could be sequenced [5] requiring an incredible amount of computing resources (exceeding those of YouTube and Twitter) and making a serious return for investors. By 2017 Grail had raised $1.1 billion, a sum that put it among the top three most heavily funded private biotech companies, according to EvaluatePharma [6] and clinical trials are currently enrolling.

As well as investing Amazon’s money, Bezos also put his hand in his own pocket, investing millions in  Unity Biotechnology, a start-up that declares its mission to be making the “debilitating consequences of aging as uncommon as polio [7].” Along with Baillie Gifford, Venrock, ARCH Venture Capital, Mayo Clinic and WuXi Pharmaceuticals, Bezos raised $116 million in Series B financing for Unity Biotech. Their research focuses in particular on senescent cells — older cells that have stopped the normal process of cell division.

Senescent cells are one of the causes of the onset of the diseases associated with aging and being able to rejuvenate them, or controlling their effect on various body processes is one of the holy grails of anti-aging research. Unity Bio has already shown in animal models that by a selective removal of senescent cells, it is possible to reverse or prevent several diseases linked to aging, including kidney diseases, osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis and several eye diseases.

Amazon has also backed Juno Therapeutics, which was acquired for $9 billion last year by Celgene (who were in turn acquired by Bristol-Myers Squibb); however, Bezos spotted this company’s potential back in 2014 when his venture capital arm Bezos Expeditions, was an early investor. An IPO success story, Juno Therapeutics made headlines in the biotech world for its breakthrough discoveries in cancer medicine, notably an exciting new type of treatment called chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, or CAR-T, which works by reprogramming previously-extracted T-cells so they can identify cancer. Once re-purposed, the cells are are infused back into the patient’s body, and set about eliminating the cancerous cells. Juno’s liso-cel, also called JCAR017, outperformed other similar therapies already on the market (Yescarta and Kymriah) in both efficacy and safety, earning itself the “best-in-class” label [8] and paying back investors’ confidence.

More recently, in 2018, Bezos Expeditions made a $15 million investment in Mindstrong Health’s Series B funding stage. Mindstrong Health’s mission is to “connect patients and providers with continuous, objective measures of cognition and mood giving patients agency in their care and providers the confidence that they can notice the early signs of mental health deterioration [9].”

Given the focus on mental health and wellness, it is not surprising that the company is generating traction. According to MIT Technology Review, Mindstrong Health is “the smartphone app that can tell you’re depressed before you know it yourself [10].”

That’s not the only app or smart technology that Amazon have dallied with. Longevity.Technology has previous reported on a range of Alexa-based patient solutions, smart speakers that detect cardiac arrests and apps that improve healthspans for Alzheimer’s sufferers. Amazon has also linked with the NHS in the UK to allow users to access health information through the AI-powered voice assistant Alexa and new voice-activated applications under development include ones that manage health-improvement goals or handle blood-sugar readings. In June 2018, Amazon paid nearly $1bn for the online pharmacy PillPack [11], which has licences to supply prescription drugs across the US, a smart move as patients are beginning to expect the level of service and flexibility from healthcare that they get from online retailers.

Jeff Bezos has shown a keen eye for investment opportunities in the past. His spread of longevity investment over the last few years shows he can take his own advice, steering his portfolio away from the obsolete and towards the forever young.

Image: lev radin /