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BioPharm Executive: Google Inc.'s Mysterious Calico Thinks It Can Cheat Death


9/23/2013 3:48:53 PM

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September 25, 2013

And My Riches Shall Conquer Death

You don't make it to the ranks of the world's richest people without a healthy ego. But Silicon Valley's elite entrepreneurs--those tech wizards who make it to the pinnacle of wealth--are a special breed. Like other rich people, they're accustomed to getting their way--not just because they can afford to, but because part of what made them rich was the confidence and wherewithal to hold to a vision and see it through, even when others believe it to be impossible.

That, along with a lot of help and good luck, can get you far in life. But as the Roman poet Horace noted, "Pale Death beats equally at the poor man's gate and at the palaces of kings." Sometime in mid-life comes the realization that all the power, smarts, and money in the world make no difference to the Grim Reaper. And then comes that answering call that made these folks entrepreneurs in the first place: What if it could?

Google founder and CEO Larry Page isn't the first rich man to try and thwart death, but he's among the most prominent. Page and Google have bankrolled Calico, a company focused on extending the human lifespan. Calico, reportedly short for California Life Company, is also backed by current Apple Chairman/former Genentech CEO Art Levinson. Levinson will be CEO of the new company. I can't tell you much else about the company, because I don't know any more--nor does it appear that anyone else does either, outside a select group of insiders. However, Levinson told the New York Times that Calico is "more of an institute certainly than a pharmaceutical company," focused on teasing out the biological mechanisms of aging.

Bill Gates was arguably feeling a similar impulse to Page when he recruited Leroy Hood from Caltech to the University of Washington in 1992. The rich funding helped launch the Institute for Systems Biology, which similarly focused on basic research aimed at elucidating complex biologic functions. The institute in turn launched a number of startups, and while none have yet been responsible for significantly expanding the human lifespan, they've done some important work nonetheless. With enough funding, Calico could potentially achieve even more.

Yet a Pew study from earlier this summer found that most Americans actually think extending the lifespan to 120 would be "bad for society." Indeed, most think that because of the strain on natural resources a longer lifespan would present, it will be available only to, well, the very rich.

I don't necessarily agree. Like most of us, I was raised to believe that the world was on a collision course with overpopulation...when in fact, the opposite problem is faced by many Western countries now. Many models currently suggest that world population will peak in the next few decades and then begin to decline. And as a glance at the U.S. or Europe will tell you, the surest way to decrease your population is to make it wealthy and long-lived.

Levinson said in the same Times article that "Larry and I share a sense of sadness that so few companies are willing to make extremely long-term bets." That's where a company like Google is almost unique--hugely rich in cash, tightly controlled by insiders due to the fact that voting rights are concentrated in the Class B shares. It can be more generous with capital, and more patient, than almost any institution on the planet.

Google's latest venture is pure hubris, but it's the best kind of hubris--they are bringing something to the table no one else can, with a project aimed at something that could benefit all humanity.

And anyway, it's our best chance--at least until Elon Musk feels the pangs of his own mortality.

-Karl Thiel

Read the BioPharm Executive online newsletter September 25, 2013.

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