Prime Movers Lab: “longevity is clearly our interest”

VC firm’s partner reveals that longevity investment will be a key focus of new $245m fund.

At the end of last year, Elevian’s $15 million funding caught the eye of many – in part because of the involvement of US venture capital firm Prime Movers Lab, which has since announced raising a whopping $245 million for its second early-stage investment fund.

Longevity.Technology: Prime Movers’ new fund is intended for investments in “breakthrough scientific start-ups” across a wide range of sectors, but the Elevian funding indicates one of those sectors is clearly longevity. We recently spoke with Dr Caleb Bell, one of the firm’s newest partners, about why the longevity opportunity excites him.

A serial biotech entrepreneur and investor, Bell joined Prime Movers in February, along with longevity specialist Dr Jyothi Devakumar and neuroscience expert Dr Amy Kruse.

“I think that right now is probably the best time in history to be in the life sciences entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Bell. “We are at this kind of ‘perfect storm place’ where innovations and capacity in areas like genetics, understandings of diseases, advent of new modalities like cell, gene and digital therapies, synthetic biology and computer science are colliding. With these and the amazing entrepreneurs leveraging them we are going to see a massive transformation of society.”

“ … we are very much looking at the diseases related to aging and how we can extend healthy life … ”

Prime Movers’ interest in longevity is further backed by the presence of Aubrey de Grey, Chief Scientific Officer at the SENS Research Foundation on its scientific advisory board.

“Longevity is clearly our interest,” says Bell. “You could say that, except for infectious disease, almost any disease indication qualifies under longevity. But now we are taking a more sophisticated look at it – we are very much looking at the diseases related to aging and how we can extend healthy life.”

There are, of course, some challenges for investors when it comes to aspects of longevity investing, in particular for companies targeting life extension.

“Even if we convinced the FDA that aging was a disease, what does the clinical trial look like for that prescribed life extension drug or intervention?” asks Bell. “It’s going to be rather long, so the challenge that I think that most of the classic VCs struggle with is: how does that square with my fund’s lifecycle and needing to return in 10 years?”

“There’s definitely interest and awareness [in longevity], but … there needs to be a clear path to some liquidity along the way … ”

Bell says that savvy entrepreneurs, who may ultimately believe they can beat aging, need to package their pitch differently.

“There’s definitely interest and awareness [in longevity], but my advice for the entrepreneurs is to understand that there’s a lifecycle, there’s a timeline. If I go back to my limited partners, and I say this is the most amazing technology, the most amazing company, it’s just gonna take us 20 years to build, that’s a difficult sell for me. There needs to be a clear path to some liquidity along the way.”

Bell says that Elevian embodies the right approach when it comes to securing investment in a technology that is ultimately targeting aging.

“They identified diseases associated with aging, where this drug candidate right now has significant potential, and they have incredibly strong animal data sets showing that rGDF11 has strong efficacy in a number of indications – their lead indication is stroke, which is super exciting,” he adds. “The experienced founder and management team have said the way they’re going to [target aging] is through these indications and advancing it very much like a traditional biotech company.”

Moving forward, Bell expects Prime Movers to make “a handful” of other interesting investments in the longevity space over the next 12 months. He reveals that the next investment to be announced will be in organ regeneration company IVIVA Medical, citing the “amazing founders and team” and “massive unmet medical need” as key drivers behind the decision to invest in the Harvard spin-out. Stay tuned for more details on that story!

The Prime Movers approach

Founded by tech entrepreneur Dakin Sloss, Prime Movers invests in breakthrough scientific start-ups with the potential to “transform billions of lives,” and Bell believes the firm does things a little differently.

“There is a huge belief and focus on the founders – treating them as our clients, and not just places to put money.”

“One of Dakin’s founding principles of the fund was to create the VC fund that we wished we had when we were entrepreneurs raising money – that comes through in a lot of ways and is very refreshing,” he says. “There is a huge belief and focus on the founders – treating them as our clients, and not just places to put money. That focus on service to the founders, as well as the science, is very appealing to me.”

Speaking about the new fund, Bell says that Prime Movers is looking to make seed and series A investments in the $2-$5 million range initially – allocating about $15 to $20 million per company in total.

“The more sophisticated the entrepreneurs and the founders behind these companies are, the more likely they are to get funded,” he adds. “The more they get funded, the more successes there are, and it grows. You are more and more seeing the traditional biotech VCs playing in [longevity], probably in part due to the sophistication of the entrepreneurs, in part also due to the maturation of the marketplace. We hope to help catalyse that too – if we can come in early and help some companies step up a little bit, hopefully that will grow the market as well.”