Meet the 23-Year-Old Who's Gambling $22 Million on Anti-Aging R&D
Published: Aug 24, 2017
August 24, 2017
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
Longevity Fund is a venture capital firm focused on investing in companies working on treating age-related diseases. So far, it has raised $22 million for a new series of investments. Which is interesting, as far as it goes, but has the “wow!” factor of being run by a 23-year-old wunderkind who started the fund before the age of 18.
Laura Deming was originally from New Zealand. Home-schooled, she became interested in math, physics and the biology of aging. At the age of 11, she wrote to Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist and biogerontologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She is currently also the vice president of aging research for Alphabet/Google’s Calico. Deming’s family was visiting the Bay Area and she asked Kenyon if she could visit the lab. Kenyon agreed, and shortly after the visit, Deming asked if she could work in the lab and again, Kenyon agreed.
The family moved to the U.S., and Deming started at the laboratory working with flatworms. By the age of 14, Deming was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which she dropped out of at the age of 16 after being accepted into the Thiel Fellowship program run by entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, which provides $100,000 to young people “who want to build new things.”
In Deming’s case, she was interested in starting a venture fund to support aging-related startup companies. And recently, the Longevity Fund closed its second fund with $22 million.
Deming tells TechCrunch that one of the Thiel program directors told her recently that he thought she’d fail. “In part,” she says, “because not long ago, if you talked with most VCs about aging, they didn’t think there was anything there. I think aging is such a young science, they hadn’t heard about it. Meanwhile, I care a lot about it, and though we don’t know if it’ll work or not, it’s not unlike [biotech companies trying to tackle] cancer in that way, and if you believe in cancer companies, you should also care about aging companies.”
The first fund raised $4 million. Deming notes that when she began, at the age of 17, she was too young to legally sign contracts. Her job was to talk to people about the related science and get them to invest in the fund. That first fund invested in five companies.
Deming is the sole general partner of the fund, but she notes, “I have a lot of back-office support. The way Longevity is structured, I’m also able to pull in the best people who have expertise from different domains, so it’s not one person who looks at all the deals.”
One of her portfolio companies is Unity Biotechnology, which closed on a $35 million Series B financing on August 17. The total financing for the company totals a whopping $151 million. New Series B investors include INVUS Opportunities, Three Lakes Partners, Cycad Group, COM Investments, and Pivotal Alpha Limited, which joined longtime in vestors ARCH Venture Partners, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Partner Fund Management, and Venrock. Other investors include Bezos Expeditions, Vulcan Capital, Foudners Fund, WuXi PharmaTech and Mayo Clinic Ventures.
Unity Biotechnology focuses on selectively eliminating senescent cells. Cellular senescence is a process that causes cells to stop dividing, and is an anti-tumor mechanism. Although that function is important, when it’s been triggered, senescent cells stay in the body, accumulating with age, excreting inflammatory molecules that damage neighboring cells and tissues.
Deming notes that all of the companies in the first fund have raised Series A rounds of $30 million or more. With the new fund, she plans to invest in eight to 10 companies.