23-Year-Old VC Bets on Lengthening Health Span

MIT dropout Laura Deming is on the hunt for causes of disease and mechanisms for quashing it.

Illustration by Meryl Rowin

Aging is a problem that Silicon Valley believes it can solve. But before Google launched Calico, its $1.5 billion venture to cheat death, and Craig Venter and Peter Diamandis teamed to form Human Longevity Inc., there was 17-year-old Laura Deming.

In 2012, she dropped out of MIT on a Thiel Fellowship, moved to California, and began raising $4 million for her first venture capital fund, inspired by her work with a mentor, Cynthia Kenyon, who studies life extension and aging.

Though Deming’s Longevity Fund has a lot less money to invest than other VC firms, her portfolio now includes high-profile companies such as Unity Biotechnology, which has raised $151 million to develop therapies that clear the body of “senescent” cells linked to diseases of aging, and Precision BioSciences, which is using genome editing to harness a patient’s immune system to develop new cancer therapies.

Last week, Deming, now 23, announced her second fund, totaling $22 million. She plans to invest in eight to 10 early-stage companies focused on increasing human “health span” — the years we live relatively free of disease. I called her for more details.

Congrats on the fund. What are the most exciting areas of health span R&D to you right now?

That is always the hardest question to answer. It’s really not so much the area as it is the area plus the opportunity — if we see an incredible entrepreneur come up. In one day, maybe I’ll look at two to five companies. They will all have different stories. Some will say, “Oh, we are going after a specific gene,” and some will have some kind of platform technology. Sometimes I meet someone who changes my mind about something or tells me about a fascinating new area of science that I hadn’t known about before. It’s unlike tech investing, where one could say, “I’m really interested in VR.” If we were to say that “we are interested in these five genetic pathways,” that would be a little too specific.

When has an entrepreneur changed your mind?

Probably every day entrepreneurs are convincing me that biology is predictable in some way. My biggest bias is that humans are too complex to predict things well, and most of our observations won’t translate or generalize.

Rates of diseases like Alzheimer’s and certain cancers are rising as people live longer. What diseases do you think offer the biggest opportunity to tackle now?

What makes us as a fund different from others is that when you say “disease,” I am confused by what the term really means at its core. A lot of what we call a disease could be something like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, where literally in the title of the disease, we don’t know what causes this. It’s a set of symptoms. Our fund is all about causes and mechanisms.

Can you give an example?

A good example has been immunotherapy. It has been more of a mechanism than going after a disease, but that has given this huge boom to the field of oncology in the last couple of years. We’re interested in things that mirror that, where you have a mechanism that is driving the excitement, and you can find ways to apply the concept in a really powerful way.

“If an investment area is long-term then youth is an advantage.”

How do you look at company’s technological approach to aging therapies? There’s a lot of promise and hype in areas like gene editing or stem cell therapy.

If you could snap your fingers and immediately edit all the genes in the human body, that would be great. But what often gets confused is that [the editing] may be part of a technology stack.

With RNAi, for example, many people thought that was going to be the next big thing. You can have this incredible research tool, but it only solves part of the problem. The thing we are trying to understand better is between having a really exciting pre-clinical result and having a really efficacious therapy in humans: what is the full stack of technologies needed for that? Twenty years down the line, the things that prevented RNAi from taking off may [have been developed], so maybe it is an exciting time to go back and try and invest.

What is it like to be a very young VC?

By definition, if an investment area is long-term then youth is an advantage. Time is squarely on your side to ask questions over decades. The negatives are too multiple to count, of course. If something is very hard by definition, even to think about theoretically, starting off with no social or financial capital definitely puts one through the ringer.

This story was updated on September 10 to correct the size of Google’s investment in Calico.

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