Interview with hugely successful investor Jim Mellon at the Undoing Aging conference in Berlin 2019!
We cover reasons why it’s a good time to invest in Anti-Aging and rejuvenation biotechnology today, the ethical reasons why we should, and effective advocacy: i.e. what one would say to a billionaire to convince them that investing in longevity medicine is a good thing to do now.
Jim raised over $150 Million for his venture Juvenescence recently!
My name is Jim Mellon, and I’m the chairman of Juvenescence, which is a company involved in the science of longevity. It is relatively recently formed; it is about a year and a bit old, but we’ve raised a significant amount of funding – nearly $160 million now – in the last year to advance the cause of longevity science. By the end of this year, we’ll have made 18 investments. Most of them are subsidiary companies of ours, so we control those companies. We give both development and financial backing to the scientist-entrepreneurs and institutions that we collaborate with.
I am fortunate to have two partners who have broad experience in the biotech and healthcare area, in particular, Declan Doogan, who was the head of drug development at Pfizer for a long period, and then he became the CEO of Amarin, which, as you know, is a very successful biotech company with a nearly $10 billion market valuation today. About four years ago, the three of us started a company called Biohaven, which is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has a valuation of about $2.5 billion. The company has approval for a drug for migraine, which will be on the market in the US next year. There is a good team of veteran drug developers and business entrepreneurs who have come together to create this Juvenescence company, and we’re very, very excited about it. We’re the biggest investors in the company ourselves, on the same terms as other investors. We will take the company public in the first quarter of next year, barring market disasters, and probably on the US stock exchanges.
We’re interested in this field of longevity science and able to raise significant funding because we’ve been in biotech for quite a long period of time, together, and created a number of companies. It seemed to be a natural outgrowth of the great developments that have occurred in the last few years. The unveiling of the human genome identified aging pathways that can now be manipulated. For the first time ever, you and I are in the cohort that is able to be bioengineered to live a healthier and longer life. It is still in a very primitive stage; we’re in the internet dial-up era equivalent, but the science is advancing very quickly.
I always say that I wrote my first book on biotech seven years ago, it was called Cracking the Code, and since then, we’ve had CRISPR/Cas9, which didn’t exist seven years ago, we’ve had the cure for Hepatitis C, we’ve had artificial intelligence for the development of novel compounds. The latter of which is a key part of our strategy, as investors in In Silico Medicine, which I think you are familiar with. Then, of course, you have cancer immunotherapy, which didn’t exist seven years ago, and is now a $100 billion / year industry. So, what’s going to happen in the next seven years? We don’t know, but it’s going to be very, very good. If you want to regard it as a casino table, we’re covering all the markers that we can with the funds that we’ve raised. We hope to raise a substantial further amount on the initial public offering of the company in the first quarter of next year, and that will give us enough firepower to do five Phase 2 trials without partners so that we can get the maximum leverage on the products that we’re developing.
So far, we’ve invested in small molecules, which is the specialization of our team. For instance, we have a senolytic drug in development in that area. We’ve also invested in stem cells; we’re the largest investor in Mike West’s company, AgeX Therapeutics, which is now a public company in the US. We own about 46% of that company. Then, via Lygenesis, we’ve also got our first product going into patients in the first quarter of next year, sick patients in a phase II trial, for organ regeneration, regenerating the liver, using hepatocytes to seed lymph nodes to act as ectopic bioreactors to grow fully functioning liver tissue. The FDA has agreed to the protocol for doing that in sick patients, which is a remarkably fast path to demonstrating successful outcomes in that area. If that is successful, then we will look to regenerate other organs, in particular the thymus, which as you know is related to aging in a big way.
We’re moving very, very quickly. We’ve got great colleagues; Margaret Jackson from Pfizer is on our team. Howard Federoff, ex-Pfizer, is on our team. Annalisa Jenkins, who was head of drug development and research and development at Merck Serono, a very big drug company, is on our team. We’ve put it all together remarkably quickly, but we have experience in doing that, and so we’re full of confidence. This is a remarkable time to be alive, and I want to be alive for at least another 20 or 30 years beyond what would be considered to be my allotted life span. The same is the motivating factor for my cofounders, Declan Doogan and Greg Bailey.
Working to extend life is an ethical cause. No one can argue, successfully at least, that this isn’t a good thing to do. There are some people who say “well, it is for the haves and not for the have-nots” but that is rubbish, because, ultimately, all these drugs will become generally available, and some of them already are. Metformin, which, as you are aware, is a drug that has some anti-aging properties, costs essentially nothing. It is a generic drug. As antibiotics, ulcer drugs, and so forth were once expensive and are now very cheap, the same thing will happen to drugs for longevity. Gene therapy and stem cells are another matter, though, and they will probably be expensive things for some time to come. But, undoubtedly, the cost will come down for those as well.
The other people who argue against work on aging talk about overpopulation; if there are all these old people, will there be enough room on the planet. Well, the answer is, we’re already alive, so we’re not going to be adding to the population. You and I are already here. The big issue on population is how many children does each woman have around the world, and that figure is falling dramatically, to the point where we can see populations actually shrinking. Just as an example, if Japan doesn’t allow immigration, or doesn’t have a baby boom, its population will fall from 126 million today to 50 million by the year 2100. So both those arguments, the haves versus the have-nots, and the overpopulation concern, are nonsensical arguments. In my view, there is absolutely no reason why governments, institutions, the general population, and the voting population shouldn’t be pushing really hard to make this happen.
Regarding the aging of the existing population and how to cope with it, the main point made by Aubrey de Grey, and other eminent scientists as well, is that if you treat the top of the cascade of damage in aging, then you are going to treat the underlying diseases of aging that pharmaceutical companies are trying to address. But for those pharmaceutical companies, it is a whack-a-mole exercise, so if you get one disease and that is cured, then you’ll get another one, and they’ll have to cure that one. Ultimately, we become destabilized and we die, all of us. So, let’s try and treat aging as the central disease, and from that as the unitary disease, we’ll be treating the cascade that follows from that.
Some people say it is hubris to target aging, but I think that this is because until relatively recently, nothing worked. It has been an aspiration of human beings for millennia to find the fountain or elixir of youth, and nothing has worked. So, people are skeptical about the fact that it might be working now: why now rather than 20 years ago or 20 years in the future? But the fact is that it is now, and we need to seize the moment and rise to the challenge. We need much more funding to come into this area, and that funding will drive the science. We need many more advocates for this cause to come to the fore and tp spread the word, that this is going to be monumentally great for human beings.
In my own case, I’ve set up a charity with Andrew Scott, who wrote The 100 Year Life, and we do a Longevity Week in London. We did the first one last year, and we’re doing the next one in November of this year, to spread the word. This will have a big societal impact, on consumption, on the way in which we look at the trajectory of life, but it is also going to have a major impact on us as human beings. In the past, you’d have expected to live to about 85 or 90, the same with me, and now we’re very likely to live to 110 or 120, so let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. I think that all of us, yourself, myself, have relatives, dear friends, and acquaintances who are suffering the indignities of aging as it currently exists. We’d like to relieve that burden of suffering by extending the healthy span of life. The personal motivation is a very big factor. Here in Berlin, there are 300 or 400 people at this conference, and I imagine that all of them, beyond just the business or scientific side of things, have an altruistic motivation for this as well. More people need to do it, so get on to it!
The elevator pitch for high net worth people thinking about investing in this space is that, first of all, we’re at the front end of a huge upward curve. I said earlier on that this was like the internet dial-up phase of longevity biotech. If you’d invested in the internet in the very early days, you’d be more than a billionaire now; you’d be one of the richest people on the planet. We’re at that stage now, so the opportunity for investors is huge, but you could do both. You could invest in something like the SENS Research Foundation or the Buck Institute or one of those wonderful organizations that is trying to advance the cause, and at the same time invest in some of the companies that come out of those institutions. We’ve undertaken two joint ventures with the Buck Institute, and we’ve made a couple of investments as a result of introductions by the SENS Research Foundation, including the organ regeneration program. If you’re a sensible billionaire, you will be putting some of your funds to work in a combination of a charitable enterprise that drives the science and the businesses themselves that come out of those enterprises.
Perhaps one of the most interesting companies in which Juvenescence has invested is Lygenesis, which is developing an approach to address liver failure by creating miniature livers to pick up the slack. Lygenesis is using a technique in which liver cells are delivered to lymph nodes, where they develop and grow into fully working liver tissue, albeit smaller than the organ they replace. If these organs are shown to perform all the functions of a working liver, they could potentially remove the need to replace damaged livers through transplants. Initial work in mice and pigs has been promising, and Lygenesis plans to move to phase 2 clinical trials in early 2020.