Age1’s Alex Colville on why moonshots have a superpower that is derisking longevity.
Last month, we covered the launch of age1, a San Francisco VC firm on a mission to lead investments in longevity science moonshots, catalyze the next generation of founder-led longevity biotech companies and advance novel therapeutics, tools and technologies that target aging and age related disease.
Longevity.Technology: Although a new kid on the block, age1 was co-founded by Laura Deming, founder of The Longevity Fund, and Alex Colville, PhD, a team with an impressive track record that boasts the first longevity-focused VC fund in 2011 and the backing of numerous IPOs and acquisitions. Add into the mix the fact that Colville, who will lead age1 as its General Partner, has actually studied the biology of aging, then you have what looks like a cast-iron recipe for success. To find out more about age1’s vocation, inspiration and destination, we sat down with Dr Alex Colville.
Paradigm shift, sea change, inflection point, critical juncture… call it what you will, the feeling is growing that the longevity revolution is upon us. As regulatory milestones in human clinical trials get nearer, scientists push the FDA to acknowledge aging as a disease, and healthcare policy builds in prevention and healthy aging, the longevity space is under a spotlight.
And for Colville, the dynamics in play – the field’s having particular attention and focus, the growing number of longevity-focused companies, and the fact that longevity biotechnology is now something with which people are familiar – all contributed to his and Deming’s decision to light the touchpaper on age1. And he acknowledges Deming’s role in those dynamics.
“Laura played a cool role in helping to make the space what it is,” says Colville. “And now we see it as the right moment to scale up the team, and the resources, to be able to transition the field, hopefully, towards approved drugs that can help people.”
Giving people agency and choice runs right through age1’s philosophy – and Colville says the company is not shy about identifying it as a major goal.
“I think it’s key for us as a fund to not be prescriptive of what people have to do or what choices people have to make,” he explains. “But what is absolutely critical is that 50 years from now and beyond, people will, in essence, be able to choose how long they live in good health – that is the vision we have for the field. We really want to get the world to a place where people don’t have to suffer from age-related disease if they don’t want to, and if they’re willing to accept the trade-offs that might come with those interventions in order to do that.”
Longevity moonshots are part of age1’s narrative, but that’s not because they generate headlines – Colville explains that he and Deming love the model because in the long run, moonshots can be more derisked than research that progresses in small, iterative steps.
“If you’re doing something that’s more incremental, it’s actually harder to get attention, to recruit the best scientists in the world to work with you, to get the best investors interested and achieve the biggest market size,” Colville says. “So, in a sense, although it’s kind of counterintuitive, moonshots are rather derisked – they have this superpower of being able to capture the attention of the public, capture the attention of potential employees, scientists, operational specialists, leadership, and so on.”
Colville feels that in some sense he and Deming have actually seen that in their own portfolio as well.
“I know a couple of Laura’s investments really felt like big moonshots at the time,” explains Colville, citing Loyal, the company working on dog longevity. “At the time of investment, Loyal felt like a very outlandish thing to be working on, but, over time, it has quickly turned from something that seemed completely outlandish, to something that every single year seems a little bit less crazy as they make progress through the clinic with their pivotal trials.”
Colville adds that things that seem “crazy moonshot” are derisked because of the excitement they generate, with people wanting to work to make them a reality.
“When Laura made the first investment in Loyal, it seemed just crazy because no-one had really talked about working on pet longevity to that extent before in a commercial sense. But, through time, we’ve seen that what was a moonshot at the time of investment has become more derisked with every year that has passed.”
Colville also cites Fauna, the company building a platform focused on studying the various omics of hibernators, which may have once seemed an outlandish proposition, but as the investment community comes to realize just impactful the insights from hibernators are to human metabolism, for example, the opportunity has been derisked.
That moonshot mentality is set to run through age1’s approach to investment selection; Colville explains that, in essence, he and Deming are looking for projects that are maximally ambitious but also achievable. “‘Pragmatic moonshots’ is how we frame it,” he adds. Add in a super-ambitious founder who has the roadmap to make seemingly-crazy 10- or 20-year visions a reality, and you’re on to a winner.
“When we meet people that have that mix of sky-high ambitions for making huge impacts to the aging field, and they also have very concrete, practical roadmaps to actually pull off those crazy visions, that’s what gets us ultra-excited, and that’s what we go for.”
When it comes to longevity research areas, Colville says he is particularly excited about the intersection between regenerative medicine and the aging field.
“It’s surprising that there hasn’t been more overlap, so far, but finally the regenerative medicine field is having crazy breakthroughs from a translational perspective,” he says.
“This whole field of human pluripotent stem cell technology has progressed at a really tremendous pace over the past 15 or 20 years or so, and is really coming to fruition,” adds Colville, citing Blue Rock Therapeutics, which is developing a cell therapy for Parkinson’s, and Neurona Therapeutics, which is targeting epilepsy with cell therapy.
“I think, finally, the regenerative medicine field, is actually really poised to get us to that place where we will be able to replace aged or damaged tissues in humans – and I think that is a crazy moment for the aging field, but not fully appreciated yet, and that’s one of the things that gets me super excited.”
Age1’s first portfolio company is Aperture Therapeutics, a pre-clinical stage drug discovery company focusing on age-related neurodegenerative disorders.
“We’re excited about Aperture because we are insanely frustrated with the fact that cognitive decline starts as early as 30, and almost nobody is doing anything about that. We are really happy that Aperture is our first bet to tackle that problem.”
In terms of other investments, Colville reveals that age1 has also recently invested in a second company, which is still in stealth mode, and should sign off on a third in a couple of weeks, if all goes to plan.
“Things are snowballing very quickly in an exciting way; we are set to be very active this Fall – and hopefully even busier this time next year, if we’re doing things right!”
Age1 is the only fund managed by someone who holds a PhD in the biology of aging, and Colville’s background gives him a unique perspective.
“Over the past 10 years of working in the field, I’ve definitely learned a lot about the limitations of all the different areas that get a lot of hype in the field. Developing a really strong case for the science is the only way that you can truly help founders – make sure that they’re not falling into dead ends or wormholes.”
The positive feedback Deming and Colville receive from their portfolio companies is reflective of the way they have specialized in the aging field.
“Laura and I spend a lot of time road mapping the future of the aging field – where we want it to head, where we believe we can help pull the future of increased healthy lifespan closer to today, and exactly what steps are needed to get there. By road mapping, by having a taste for the science, and by just spending a lot of time in the field, I think we can make a difference for founders in earlier stages as they set out to make an impact on the longevity field.
“We are so close to the future we want – a lot of hard work is tucked into it, but we are so close.”