The Undoing Aging conference, a collaboration between the SENS Research Foundation and Michael Greve’s Forever Healthy Foundation, took place on March 15-17 in Berlin, which saw many researchers, advocates, investors, and other important members of the longevity community gather together to learn about the latest progress in rejuvenation biotechnology.
As we had arranged a travel grant for Anna Dobryukha, one of the best Russian journalists writing about aging, longevity, and rejuvenation research, to join us, it made sense to collaborate with her on the most interesting interviews. Anna works for Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of the largest Russian publishing houses, which has a newspaper, a radio station, and a website with over 40 million readers. Anna has also published an article based on this and other interviews taken during the conference which you can find here.
During the conference, Anna and Elena interviewed LEAF president Keith Comito about crowdfunding and the challenges we face as full-time advocates in the field. Anna (A), Keith (K), Elena Milova (E), and Steve Hill (S) were all present and can be identified by the corresponding letters in the dialogue below.
K: My name is Keith Comito. I am a computer programmer, mathematician, and president of the Lifespan Extension Advocacy Foundation, which works to raise funds and awareness for research aimed at extending healthy human lifespan.
E: Vera Gorbunova said that one of the main bottlenecks is the deficiency of funding, so what do you think are the most promising ways to increase funding for fundamental and translational gerontology?
K: Sure. Funding for this research can come from multiple sources. You have government funding, private foundations, large philanthropic donors, the public, and the crowd, and we feel that in order to best increase funding you have to hit all these aspects simultaneously. If you look at previous examples of, say, cancer advocacy or the movement to remediate and cure AIDS, you can see a specific progression: there is a grassroots movement that builds up and perhaps raises some amount of funds, on the order of millions of dollars, to address the problem. But the truly powerful effect here is to galvanize a large, significant portion of the population to recognize and get behind solving the problem at hand.
Then the successful advocates of the past have utilized the resulting societal pressure to lean on government, because that is where you can get the big money, on the order of billions, dedicated to research. So, an effective strategy is to be clear about this, about the process of funding itself and how to maximize getting money and attention into this research.
It is important to get people involved when successes occur; don’t just keep it in the bubble — use that momentum to also engage governments and engage large foundations, such as the Bill Gates Foundation. I think we are starting to see that happen. Events like this help because they engage investment capital, just as raising the public profile of this research through crowdfunded and crowdsourced initiatives is also a way to introduce investors into this space. This then becomes a 1-2-3 combo; once you have a very large investor make a very public investment into a company like Unity, for example, the rest of the community says, “This is valid; this is now something to look at and invest into.” This, in turn, continues to raise the profile of this field of research, growing the grassroots support behind it, increasing pressure on governments, etc.
E: Could you please give an approximate evaluation of what share of funding comes from crowdfunding initiatives and what share of funding comes from the government?
K: As far as I know, right now, the amount of funds coming from crowdfunding would be comparatively quite small.
A: What percentage? Maybe about 10 percent? Or less?
K: I would say even lower. Maybe even less than one percent. This is speculative. To give you some numbers to help with this calculation, on the projects we’ve crowdfunded — I think we have crowdfunded the largest amount of funds for this kind of research per project as compared to Experiment.com or other such sites — we average around fifty thousand per project. A typical government grant for regular researchers exceeds one hundred thousand. Large-scale initiatives from the government can be hundreds of millions or more. So, I would say that there is a very small percentage coming from crowdfunding right now.
E: May I add something? If you have a look at the Buck Institute budget, you will see that approximately 40 percent comes from crowdfunded initiatives. But they have their own fundraising department, and it has to be taken into account. Another big part of their funding includes government grants. A very small part is the support they receive from their previous research, which is now giving them back some money because of their existing patents. So, if you need an example of an organization doing research in this field, you could just have a look at Buck’s reports from the last few years. There, you can see the approximate shares of their budget.
K: It also depends on how you define crowdfunding. I think that most people would think of it as what you would do on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but I suppose you can also consider the kind of direct fundraising by an organization that you mention as a form of crowdfunding as well. An organization like Buck or SENS can say “We want to do this research; we are soliciting donations from our community to help this” — this is crowdfunding in a sense, and would raise the earlier-discussed percentage.
E: Anna would like to know the proportions of state funding and private funding, and I say that it pretty much depends on the country. For instance, in Russia, fundraising for scientific research is not customary yet; we are still developing this culture. But, in Western countries, it is the opposite; most of the money comes from private initiatives and private donors, and a smaller share comes from government grants like in Buck’s case. But, we cannot really say it is ten times more or ten times less; it depends.
K: We can certainly look up the US budget and how much is allocated to help the NIH; if we want to get more precise numbers on this, there are ways we can dig into it.
E: We can, but another problem is that it is very hard to separate the funding that goes into medical research related to the diseases of aging and the mechanisms of aging. Sometimes, it’s a project that combines both. So, again, if you have a look at the numbers, the amount that goes to age-related diseases is huge, but it doesn’t really involve our community.
E: So, crowdfunding does not seem to be the main instrument for allocating funds into gerontology. Still, you put a serious weight on crowdfunding as a way to create innovative therapies. So, you obviously see some perspectives; why, exactly, do you perceive this method as a promising one; does it have to do with the education of the society that comes together with the process of crowdfunding?
K: That’s a great question. There are multiple angles why we feel this is important and why we focus on it. One is that when we were first starting as an organization, we assessed that one of the main issues of our field is that there are a lot of people who talk about it and who want it to happen, but there is not a lot of action among the community. So, we felt that it was very important to have a continuous, clear call to action. This way, any time someone’s talking about this, it’s not just “Oh, what an interesting idea, now you can go along with the rest of your life”; it’s “Oh, what an interesting idea, and if you want to do something about it in an exciting way, here’s how you can get involved.” That’s a gateway to becoming further involved with the community. So that’s one benefit.
Another benefit involves — I’m not sure if you are familiar this term — the valley of death. A lot of companies die after their initial proofs of concept because it costs millions of dollars to do competitor analysis and go through the FDA, etc. So, while we are not crowdfunding that amount of money, we can serve as a bridge through the valley of death because if there is a company that has a very promising idea and is looking to prove its concept, we can get the community excited about that and help that company get the initial funds to be able to do that proof of concept — and here’s the important part: while doing that, we’ve informed everyone about it, so we can handshake that company with investors afterwards to bridge the valley of death.
E: Maybe you can mention the experience with CellAge, which received its first share of funding from investors right after its campaign?
K: Right, so Elena is bringing up a specific example of this; a company that we crowdfunded, CellAge, working on senescent cell targeting mechanisms. That company raised about 30,000 dollars from our crowdfunding campaign, but we were approached by and also approached investors right after that. Then, the company successfully raised a round of investment and is continuing along, so that is a specific example of how that happened.
E: Would you like to add something to this commentary; maybe there are some ideas you would like to share?
K: In general, my message to the community, especially to laypeople who are becoming interested in this field, is that there is a tendency to think that the researchers and organizations in this field have it all under control and don’t need any help, so you cannot contribute anything, but this is not true. I am speaking a little for everyone here, but I believe that the sense from other organizations is also that help of every kind is needed, no matter what you can do, whether that’s graphic design, PR, the research itself, a little money, or a little bit of time to just talk to people or make a connection that we are looking to make. It is a very exciting field, a growing field that I believe will become very profitable in the near future as well, but we are still at the very beginning phase of it becoming mainstream.
Thus it is a great time for anyone who wants to get involved in any way to get involved. That help is needed, and you are looking at the chance to affect the lives of everyone you know and love. If you seek meaning and purpose in your life, this is a great way to actualize that.
My broad message is to get involved because this is important, whether you want indefinite life extension or just don’t want your mom and dad to get Alzheimer’s disease. Especially, as the population is aging, this is something we are all going to encounter, and I’ve been through that personally — my parents and myself were primary caregivers for my grandmother who had very protracted, horrible Alzheimer’s disease. Nobody wants that, so I think it is very important to realize that we are in this together and that we should all work together towards this grand purpose of overcoming age-related diseases.
E: Sometimes, in the comments under Anna’s articles, people are asking questions like “Why extend life, it is probably going to be so boring?”, “Our lives are already so tough; we wouldn’t want to live longer,” and on and on.
K: Sure, this is the area I personally find most interesting to talk about, because passionate beliefs often breed intense conflict, and life extension is certainly an idea that creates passionate believers. When you meet people who aren’t on the same page, it is easy to think “Oh, that person is an idiot” or “They just don’t get it”, and I don’t think that’s the right approach. If you haven’t killed yourself, you obviously enjoy living, so I strongly believe there is a survival aspect that is absolutely reachable with reasoned and compassionate conversation. So, what I would suggest is to be aware of something called cognitive biases, the flaws in our mental hardware that make it particularly difficult to think or fantasize about what it would be like to live longer. You imagine it like being someone else deep in the future instead of imaging it as you would actually experience it, living in the now, day after day after day.
One question I like to ask people, say a fifty-year-old, is, “Would you like to live fifty more healthy years?” Most people say something like, “No, eighty is quite long enough; it’s been a good life and I don’t want to drag it on” etc., but built into that are a couple of interesting cognitive flaws that can be exposed. So that’s my first question, but then I ask, “Do you want to be alive tomorrow?” Everyone says yes. Then I ask, “Assuming nothing changes and you’re just as healthy, your family is just as healthy, do you think your answer to that question will change tomorrow?” And most people say, “No…tomorrow I would also say that I would want to be alive the next day.” So, by a sort of mathematical induction, you are saying that you want to live fifty years longer, assuming good health, which is what this is all about, assuming that we succeed with improving health.
So with this people will often realize there is something discordant in their answers. Why? It’s because of this idea of cognitive biases — that when I ask you the latter two questions, you are thinking of it like infinite tomorrows, and it’s easy to put yourself into the position of saying “If I’m healthy, I would want to live the next day.” As a corollary to this, if you talk to very healthy 85-year-olds and their lives are going great, and you ask if they want to be alive next year, they say, “Absolutely.” But if you ask a 20-year-old, “Do you want to be 85?” most of them reply “No, no.” So, it’s kind of a flaw in reasoning; that’s one aspect of it.
Another common critique is “I don’t want to be decrepit; I don’t want to be the way I think of a 100-year-old, extended by 20 years.” This is a perfectly logical fear. So, when we engage as advocates, we have to understand that this fear indeed makes perfect sense; we don’t want that either. The important thing that we need to convey is that the only way you will get significant life extension is if you get significant health extension. So, that nightmare scenario is not what is going to happen; in fact, if you look at it in some ways, that dark state of affairs is actually what is maximized by the current system of healthcare, which can involve being hooked up to dialysis machines for the last ten years of your life or having your identity slowly eroded by Alzheimer’s. We are already in that situation, and we’re trying to change it. It’s on us to explain that successfully.
To address the boredom question — it’s related to the earlier issues — but the boredom question involves various psychological concepts, like the hedonic treadmill for instance. You imagine that in the future your sensibilities are going to be vastly different from the way they currently are now, but in general, they won’t be. If you win the lottery, you feel amazing for a couple of weeks, then you return to the same level of happiness. If you suffer a terrible tragedy, so too do you gradually return to roughly your same base level. The same thing happens with time; the fact of the matter is that, generally, you are going to have a sense of life similar to how it is now; not vastly different. You will be as bored then approximately as much as you are bored now — so don’t be bored, or boring!
It’s also not just about boredom; some people think it will be even worse than that — that you will have no ambition if you live longer as if you need a short life to light a fire under you so that you do something. This idea is even in fiction; works like the Lord of the Rings have elves that are slow to act because they live for thousands of years, unlike the humans who are impelled to action because they are going to die. To that, Aubrey once had a funny line at a conference: he basically said, “If you are a young man whose hormones are raging and you meet a beautiful woman, and you want to talk to her, you are not going to be like, ‘I’m not going to die anytime soon, so I can talk to her in 20 years.’” That one made me laugh.
S: Bear in mind that the world changes so rapidly, even looking back to the 1990s, which in my mind was only very recent, but it really was a long time ago. So much has changed from the 1990s, the internet, smartphones, everything is so different; there are so many experiences, VR, and there will be even more, and it’s going to come faster, and faster, and faster.
K: To be fair that is a bit speculative, but I believe this as well. It kind of depends on how optimistic about the future you are. I personally think that the number of things that you can do is going to increase, so, if anything, you would be just as bored or less bored than you are now. This assumes, again, that you are healthy and able to take advantage of these things instead of being infirm in a bed, which is why health is such an important part of life extension.
We would like to thank Anna and Elena for taking the time to do this interview and to Keith for providing us with some insight into how he sees the task of popularizing the idea of healthy longevity and the challenges involved in doing so.