Project 21 well on track

SENS Foundation business model evolves to focus on spin-outs.

At the recent Longevity Forum in London, one of the keynote sessions was delivered by Dr Aubrey de Grey, founder and Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based biomedical research charity that performs and funds laboratory research dedicated to combating the ageing process. The foundation recently announced the spin-out of Underdog Pharmaceuticals, the latest of several early stage start-ups to emerge from its labs.

Back in 2016, de Grey announced the commencement of Project 21 – an initiative to raise funding and bridge the challenging gulf between research and treatment by enabling clinical trials. We spoke to de Grey to find out how Project 21 has progressed since its inception.

Longevity.Technology: How did Project 21 come into being?
Dr de Grey: The name Project 2021 was always a bit of a misnomer. It wasn’t really a project in any real sense, it was really just an umbrella name that we gave to our fundraising efforts, especially for high net worth donors. Basically, we had come to the conclusion that a very clear majority of the people who were giving us money or making positive noises about doing so tended to be investor types and were more inclined to give money to a benefactor than to charities. So the goal was to try to persuade people who were psychologically investors first and donors second to nevertheless support us. We felt that one thing that we had not emphasised sufficiently over the previous years, was the timeframe proximity of clinical trials.

Before that, we’d focused on making big breakthroughs in things like mouse longevity, which excites biologists like me but doesn’t necessarily excite investors. Or we’d focus on the ultimate goal, which means having everything together and achieving this thing I’ve been calling longevity escape velocity, which is obviously quite a long way away.

So we started to look at an intermediate milestone, where almost all of the individual SENS strands are in some kind of early stage clinical trial – not necessarily for aging and maybe for some particular condition that will demonstrate proof of concept in humans. We felt this might be something that would appeal more, both for showing the potential donor that we’re really making progress, but also in terms of investors, because even if something is initially being used for something not as universal as aging, you can still make plenty money out of it.

And so the name Project 21 arose because we thought “How soon is it going to be that most if not all of what we’re doing is going to be in the clinic?” And we came up with a number of about five years, which was 2021.

Longevity.Technology: And you initially started out with a goal of raising $50 million?
Dr de Grey: Yes, and that remains the case. The amount of money we have in the foundation to fulfil this research is very much rate limiting. In other words, if we had 10 times more money, we wouldn’t go 10 times faster but would definitely go a couple of times faster and that would still save a hell of a lot of lives. So the question is, how much more money would we need in order to ensure it was not rate limiting? And the kind of numbers that I have always given are in the range of $50 million to $100 million per year, in contrast to the kind of budget that we have historically had, which is in the mid-single digit millions.

We’re only taking about one order of magnitude more money, but that’s still a lot, and obviously we still don’t have it so the concept and the pitch is still the same.

Longevity.Technology: So with 2021 now just a year away, is Project 21 on track?
Dr de Grey: Back in 2016, our best guess at the time was 2021 and I’m quite gratified to say that we haven’t had to change the name to Project 22! Progress has occurred at pretty much the rate we had predicted back then. Indeed, a number of the projects that we were originally thinking about are either already in clinical trials or will be in clinical trials next year.

There are some that may miss the 2021 deadline, but I think we will be able to say by the end of 2021 that we will have achieved the goal that we expected. Certainly, if we were to receive a big chunk of money now and were able to actually accelerate things over the coming couple of years, then I think we definitely will be able to say that. I would say that two thirds of our projects are already on track, but it would be more like 90% of the project, if we had double the budget over the next two years.

Longevity.Technology: How has Project 21 evolved since 2016?
Dr de Grey: Some of the more significant developments that have occurred are in terms of our business model. In 2016, we had barely started thinking in terms of spinning projects out as start-up companies. But it was in 2016 that Michael Greve came along – a German entrepreneur who made money in the early days of the web. He started giving us a million dollars a year, but he also started investing a million dollars a year in companies that were very much in our space, and was specifically interested in companies coming from our own projects. And that has worked out beautifully – he has now done that for a number of companies as well as a number of companies that are not spinouts from us, but are closely aligned with us.

And he’s not been the only one, so now it’s accurate to say that our business model is to work on important projects in this rejuvenation space for as long as it takes to get them to a point of sufficient proof of concept that an investor decides they can join the dots. As long as they can see the path from where we are to eventual revenue, and are therefore willing to back an actual for-profit entity. We’ve done this six or seven times now.

But SENS Foundation is still a charity – we haven’t shut up shop and declared victory yet. And that’s because there are still some equally vital projects that have not reached an investable stage, so Project 21 is alive and kicking.

Longevity.Technology: SENS Foundation is a charity – so how does the non-profit aspect connect with investors?
Dr de Grey: There is a big link. I always say to investors that if you’re thinking about writing proper sized cheques to start-up companies in the space, and you’re happy with the really early stage of all of this – high risk, high reward – then you should also want to be donating to the foundation. What you will get for that is as much of my time as you want, which means that you will be in the position of having access to the information that will allow you to be a founding investor in the next start-up, which other people just won’t have.

Back in 2015, we had one major donor, a very busy guy and seriously successful businessman, who, twice a year, would take an entire day to come visit us and get as much information as he was able to understand on everything we were doing. One day he turned around and said “Look, this project that you’re funding – I think I can make money out of it.” So he basically created a company, out of the blue, he took our people, gave us 10% of the company.

And although that company was actually not successful, it changed our mindset completely. Since then, we have been aggressively pursuing that way of doing things, and all the other companies that we spun out have been very effective in terms of bringing in initial investment. It’s definitely created a pipeline and I would say we are likely to be doing at least one a year, probably closer to two a year, for the foreseeable future.

Image credit: Phil Newman