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Why are all the tech billionaires chasing ‘immortality’?

by Valentina Lencautan Published on 28th Jul 2015

by Valentina Lencautan Published on 28th July 2015

With the regenerative medicine market currently estimated at being worth $1.6 billion, and showing chances of reaching $20 billion by 2025, we are seeing a boom of investments in the field of ‘immortality.’ Internet giants who are making substantial biotech investments are convinced that 10 years from now we will have a better understanding of what causes the aging process and how to stop it. They are willing to put up with government bureaucracy, skeptics and prejudice, and persist to overcome political issues. All for the common purpose of fighting death.

The ‘godfather’ of tech billionaires Bill Gates has gone on record to call such pursuits by his peers as ‘egocentric’, but is it really ego that motivates prominent entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Bill Maris and Mark Zuckerberg  to invest in start-up biotech companies and promote the idea that aging can be curable? Or is it something else?

A good investment?

Pouring money into the longevity sector can be explained firstly, and quite simply as due to it being a good investment. Many of the biggest biotech companies have recently seen some of their biggest financial returns, and as a result of what is being termed a ‘biotech boom’, the anti-aging market is expected to hit $345.8 billion a year by 2018.

PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel, lauded as one of the world’s most successful ever investors, was able to successfully anticipate this revolution in digital health. He has poured significant sums into innovations like 3D printing, virtualization, and human genomics, and overall holds stakes in 14 health and biotech companies - most concerned specifically with solving the problems associated with aging.

Likewise, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have followed this same path. Initiators of the long-term Calico project, which focuses on ageing research and associated diseases, each partner has donated an initial $250 million, with the plan to add an additional $500 million in funding as the project develops. The two billionaires have also invested millions in numerous other biotech start-ups, such as Genentech and 23AndMe, a company co-founded by Brin’s wife.

But arguably the individual making the biggest foray into life sciences is Google Ventures’ Bill Maris. Not exactly a billionaire himself, but with $1.6bn of Google money under his management, he started turning his attention to investing in this area as far back as 2009, and a big part of the $425 million Maris has in his investment budget this year will be invested in longevity-based health. Last year Google Ventures already set a new record for its own level of investment in the industry - as out of the $1.6 billion Google Ventures budget, 35% was allocated for investments in health tech.

All in all, investment in aging research just seems to make more sense than any other area of healthcare. According to the popular investment website moneymorning.com, investment in healthcare is drastically moving towards anti-aging research in anticipation of technological advances, and a long-term movement towards preventative medicine. With the likelihood that this will lead to even greater investment opportunities and financial rewards in the future, these high-profile investors hope to address many of the issues healthcare systems face by solving the problem of why we get sick in the first place. As a result, such a movement towards preventative medicine would not only lighten the load upon struggling healthcare systems throughout the world, but also offer huge financial rewards for those developing these treatments.

Personal Desire to live longer?

Although undoubtedly motivated by financial reward, for some investors who have proclaimed their wish to radically extend human lifespan there are also personal factors which can explain each individual’s contributions. In this regard, those investing in radical life extension of course want to see the benefits of it themselves.

Peter Thiel makes no secret of his plan to live until he is at least 120. He confessed in an interview with the Washington Post that he has been disturbed by the idea of death since childhood:

"I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing. I think that’s somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive."

But while Thiel’s outspokenness on the subject of ending death is a manifestation of his personal ambition to live indefinitely, for the two Google co-founders the topic is a more delicate one. Sergey Brin discovered he was a carrier of a genetic mutation in 2008, which exposes him to the danger of developing Parkinson’s disease, whilst Larry Page’s interest could have stemmed from his own personal medical condition - in 2003 he was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis disease, which has impacted his voice, and can be dangerous if untreated.

Ventures such as Calico and partnerships with the Buck Institute emphasize Page’s and Brin’s eagerness to focus on anti-aging studies, even if it is likely to take time before these ideas become reality. Page recently told TIME that his current aim is to “shoot for the things that are really, really important so ten or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

With all being from a scientific background, Page, Brin and Maris particularly are clear in their belief that science holds the key to radically improving both the human condition and the world we live in - the pinnacle of this being radically prolonging human lifespan. In a recent Bloomberg interview Maris points out we live in an era where science can make all the tools available for any audacious vision out there. He admits: “I just hope to live long enough not to die.”

Philanthropy?

But is it so hard to believe that billionaires really seek to do good with their money? Perhaps these investments can actually be explained as a desire to genuinely improve society by leading the cause of prolonging healthy lifespan.

When Page and Brin formed Google Calico, Missy Krasner, a Google Health employee declared: “Larry and Sergey have always had this grand vision about how to help society and improve public health.” For Sergey Brin this mission has so far manifested itself in over $150 million of personal investments, given primarily to companies that use data to understand DNA. Together with Mark Zuckerberg, he also co-sponsors the $33 million Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences, awarded to scientists engaged in curing age-related diseases.  

Thiel is also driven by the desire to improve public health in the US, a system which he is openly critical of, and one which is increasingly burdened by an aging population. In a Reddit AMA Peter Thiel declared: “We would never design a system like this if we were to start from scratch.” As a result, through his $2 billion capital Founders Fund, Thiel regularly provides money for biotechnology companies and researchers looking at different ways to slow down or stop aging. He has provided Aubrey de Grey’s Methuselah Foundation with over $6 million to help with their mission to find drugs to cure age-related damage.

Similarly Maris has long insisted on a more meaningful purpose for Google Ventures’ investments, and moving into the field of healthcare represents a chance for Google money to be used towards developing a more optimistic scenario where people are given the chance to live longer healthier lives. In exclaiming “medicine needs to come out of the dark ages”, he plans to use Google Ventures as a primary vehicle for making this happen.

For the newest tech billionaire to enter the arena, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg the intentions particularly appear to be altruistic and humanitarian. To Stephen Hawking’s question in a recent Facebook Q&A on which of the biggest mysteries in science he would like to have an answer to, Zuckerberg wrote an entire list, including “how to cure all diseases” and “what could enable us to live forever?” Also, in 2013, in a status update, the Facebook chief executive wrote: "Our society needs more heroes who are scientists, researchers, and engineers," and "we need to celebrate and reward the people who cure diseases, expand our understanding of humanity, and work to improve people's lives."

Thus, judging by the amounts of money and time these investors are devoting to supporting a range of innovations designed to improve both the human condition and healthcare, one can easily determine that there is genuine interest in making a positive impact on society.

Investing in a better future

So overall, pouring money into longevity-based business seems a pretty sound investment, particularly when some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and investors are right at the forefront of the industry’s development. But is it ego? Well, no. Although these expenditures may indeed be seen as pretentious, in the grand scheme of things, they represent a significant contribution to society’s advancement.

To these tech billionaires, evolution is meant to be transcended, and the resources put into organ regeneration, drugs that control ageing, or reprogramming DNA reflects their conviction that people have the right to lead better lives. Although some of their philanthropic ideas have been criticised, all stand by their principles, and as a result life extension will continue to be one of the main areas being invested in by the great and good of Silicon Valley.

And why? Because they have a clear idea of the society they want to live in and how it should function, and above all else hold the financial resources to make it happen.