One of the more productive strategies undertaken by advocates and venture firms in the longevity industry is to put effort into the creation of companies, rather than waiting for companies to arise. This is still a small, young industry, without the sizable ecosystem that attends more mature areas of biotechnology, and thus many, many lines of research that might be productively developed into therapies targeting the mechanisms of aging remain stuck in academia. For investors and advocates to change this state of affairs requires building connections in the research community, introducing researchers and entrepreneurs, and helping research teams to make the transition into forming a company for commercial development. Investors are somewhat more efficient in conducting this sort of program, given that they have meaningful funding to hand, and so it is good to see more venture firms, such as Apollo Ventures, undertaking initiatives in company formation.
The idea that something might be done about age-related diseases using a repair-based approach targeting the root causes of aging was, for the most part, not taken seriously just a decade ago. What has happened in the last few years to increase acceptance and confidence in the idea?
I think the biggest change is the progress in aging science – over the last 10 years, scientific knowledge has evolved very quickly and reached a point where we finally understand what aging means on a molecular level and how we can fight it. Also, accelerating technologies like CRISPR and AI have catalyzed the entire longevity industry. At Apollo Ventures, we are leveraging this scientific progress to build the companies that will finally target the root cause of age-related diseases.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Moonshot Venture Fellowship?
The Moonshot Venture Fellowship is a 12-month program designed to give scientists the experience and support to create, launch, and build a venture-backed life science company based on outstanding science. For a scientist with a passion for translating research into medicines that make a difference for patients, the Moonshot Fellowship is an accelerated path to the skills to be a leader in life science companies. Our industry is a very young one. Thus, we believe that company building is needed to build up our industry. In the Moonshot Venture Program, either very senior pharma executives or biotech entrepreneurs are coming to us with an specific idea for a new company, or smart and ambitious postdocs who don’t have a specific idea for a company but unique insights and expertise in a specific area of the longevity field.
Traditionally, there has been somewhat of a disconnect between basic research and spinning that off into a biotech company capable of developing and delivering a therapy to market. How exactly is the Moonshot Venture Fellowship helping to bridge that gap?
The postdocs that we hire do exactly that. Most of them are coming out of universities and have significant expertise in aging science when they join our program. They have about 6 months of time to speak with everybody in their field, visit conferences, and read papers. Together with us, they evaluate the best technologies and ideas they find during their research. Our team’s expertise and long biotech experience is a great source to come up with a promising development plan. We help with tasks like IP evaluation, technology licensing, indication selection, and drug development plans. When all evaluations are positive, we found a company jointly with our fellows. Our support does not stop with the foundation of the company. We continue to be deeply engaged in the development of the company. Fundraising in our broad co-investor network and recruiting are two good examples where we can be really helpful for young companies.
Many promising startups fall foul of the “valley of death” before they can deliver to market and become profitable. How can programs such as the Moonshot Venture Fellowship help to mitigate this issue?
A program like ours can help to mitigate that issue, because apart from the scientific evaluation, we have the expertise, manpower and capital to commercialize such technologies. We are convinced that a clear clinical strategy and simply knowing who are the right co-investors for a project keep promising technologies from “drying out”. Our team has co-invested with all the experienced biotech VCs. We actively fundraise for our companies in our network so that the team can focus on what they are good at, i.e. developing promising therapeutics for age-related diseases.
What do you see based on your experience as being the greatest bottleneck to getting rejuvenation biotechnology based approaches to aging from the bench to the bedside?
It is definitely, first and foremost, money. However, the situation is getting better quickly, as more and more VCs and institutional investors realize that the longevity field is developing real technologies, solving a very important problem and the biggest business opportunity out there.