What’s the Deal with Longevity Company Unity Biotechnology and its $700 Million Valuation?
Early biotech company valuations are a type of voodoo made up of interesting ideas, talented management, investor enthusiasm and wishful thinking. How to explain UNITY Biotechnology, which wants to help you stay young until you die? The company has raised $222 million in venture capital, raised $85 million in an initial public offering (IPO) in May, and has a value of $700 million. All without having a product to sell.
Unity Biotechnology’s focus is on killing senescent cells. These cells are essentially aging cells that aren’t quite dead, but aren’t actually doing anything anymore, and they build up in the body and are part of what makes people feel old—related to achy joints, diminished eyesight and some diseases of aging, potentially Alzheimer’s. The company believes that if you can kill those senescent cells, you can eliminate many of the symptoms of aging.
“Like, how awesome would it be?” said Nathaniel “Ned” David, the co-founder and president of the company, to Forbes. “The problem is you have to take the first baby step to demonstrate it’s possible. That’s what chapter one is: demonstrate in a human being that the elimination of senescent cells takes a heretofore inescapable aspect of aging and can either halt it or reverse it.”
“Just that,” responds the company’s chief executive officer and chairman, Keith Leonard. “It’s easier to talk to the Food & Drug Administration about treatment of a disease once it’s diagnosed than it is to work really early and prevent disease. But [prevention] is what we’d love to get to.”
At the moment, the company’s pipeline is all early stage. UBX0101 is close to Phase I for osteoarthritis. Its UBX1967 is in lead optimization for diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration. It also has other programs in pulmonary diseases, cognition, and kidney disease, all in the preclinical stages. UBX0101 is currently recruiting patients for a Phase I trial.
UBX0101 is described as “a potent senolytic small molecule inhibitor of the MDM2/p53 protein interaction. Disruption of this protein interaction can trigger the elimination of senescent cells.”
UBX1967 is for diseases of the eye and is a senolytic small molecule inhibitor of specific members of the Bcl-2 family of apoptosis regulatory proteins. The company notes, “Senescent cells utilize pro-survival mechanisms to remain viable and rely on specific Bcl-2 protein family members to persist and accumulate in tissues.” The company plans to submit its IND application and begin a Phase I trial in the second half of 2019.
Ned David co-founded Unity in 2011 because, he said, it was “simply the coolest biology he had ever seen.” Prior to co-founding the company, he co-founded four other biotech companies that in total have raised over $1.5 billion in financing. These include Syrrx, which was acquired by Takeda, Achaogen (AKAO), Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, later acquired by Allergan, and Sapphire Energy.
Kristina Burow, managing director at Arch Venture Partners, who has invested in four of David’s companies, told Forbes, “He’s probably the best person in the world at finding great academic science and shaping it into a fundable story and a sellable business plan.”
There may be two other factors involved as well. First, the timing just may be right for research into longevity—science has a much deeper understanding of aging based on things like senescent cells and telomere shortening—a function of cell division that places a limit on the number of times a cell can divide. And secondly, a lot of investors, especially of the billionaire-variety, are aging.
It was recently noted that a number of billionaires who are fifty years or older in age, have been investing in health care and longevity-related startups companies. That includes Bill Gates, 62, Michael Bloomberg, 76, Richard Branson, 67, Tim Disney, 57, Andrew Russel, 56, Jeff Bezos, 65, Peter Thiel, 50.
Another factor, not really related to age, is that there are a number of people who have created enormous amounts of wealth, often via tech companies, and longevity research just seems like a good idea whose time has come. Which may be why Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and his wife, physician Priscilla Chan, have invested $3 billion toward basic research over the next 10 years. Both of them are 33 years old. And Bill Marris, who is 42, the founder and former chief executive officer of GV (Google Ventures), invested and founded Calico, a Google/Alphabet company, whose focus is aging and related diseases.
It’s possible that betting on a potential fountain of youth is just a good investment.