Investing in arresting ageing
Last week, I spent a couple of days in Chennai with my 96-year old aunt. She is surrounded by a loving family, is well cared for, and has kept her physical health for the most part. Unfortunately, her senile dementia has progressed to the point where she is little better than a 9-month-old baby in cognitive function. Being with her was painful.
Her decline has been rapid. Less than five years ago, she was my mother’s companion—and primary care manager—while my mother was going through her own terminal illness. I remember once remarking to my mother how this aunt’s joie de vivre was astounding for someone who was already a nonagenarian. My mother’s response was that this aunt came from a generation that had been toughened by the experience of war while still a young adult. This lady knew how to operate a firearm, a skill she had picked up while being trained as a Malayan-Indian recruit in the Indian National Army (INA) set up by Subhash Chandra Bose.
Seventy years later, she still had a stentorian voice that she used frequently with the nursing staff assigned to my mother. She had belonged to the Rani of Jhansi regiment, and served until the INA was dissolved after Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II—but not before she had lost two of her brothers in battle. Both were officers in the INA, which was the force that did most of Japan’s fighting against the British in Burma, all the way up into Imphal in North-East India.
It is probably that rigorous physical training and the medical care she received from my parents later in life that has kept up her physical health, but King Alzheimer has come calling regardless, probably finding his way in through the back door that my mother’s passing had left open in this lady’s mind. I remember her remarking at the time that her “job was done here” and it was now time for the Almighty to “send the lift down” for her. Sadly, it seems the call button isn’t working.
It is while I was with her in Chennai that I read an article on the website Futurism, which announced that the well-known business accelerator Y Combinator (YC) has launched YC Bio, a funding track specifically for life science companies. On 11 January, Sam Altman, YC’s president, announced this new experiment. Due to the size of the biology field, Altman explained that YC thought it made sense to focus on one specific area at a time. He said the company has also found that “companies working in similar areas get a lot of value from being around each other”. The initial focus will be companies looking to help humans live longer, healthier lives. The attempts here will be too late to help my nonagenarian aunt, but nonetheless, it is encouraging that a leading accelerator/investor is beginning to look at this problem in earnest.
Y Combinator is known for having an innovative method for incubating start-ups. According to its website, it invests $120,000 (or about Rs78 lakhs) each in a large number of start-ups, twice a year. The start-ups then move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which the accelerator works intensively with them to get the start-up company into the best possible shape to refine its pitch to prospective investors. Each cycle culminates in a “Demo Day”, when the startups present their companies to a carefully selected, invite-only audience of investors who might be interested in funding the start-ups’ projects. It has funded over 1,400 start-ups since 2005, and counts Dropbox, Airbnb and others among its alumni. These are now valued at over $80 billion, according to YC.
The first area of focus for YC Bio is “healthspan” and age-related disease. Healthspan is the idea that medicine should not just help people live longer, but also allow those people to enjoy good health and a high quality of life over the course of their years. “We think there’s an enormous opportunity to help people live healthier for longer, and that it could be one of the best ways to address our healthcare crisis,” Altman wrote in his blog post announcing YC Bio.
According to Futurism, like the YC AI track, which funds companies focusing on artificial intelligence (AI), companies participating in YC Bio will first go through the accelerator’s regular batch before receiving their offer. Like YC’s AI track, instead of the standard YC deal of $120,000 in exchange for a 7% ownership, YC Bio companies will receive an offer between $500,000 and $1 million for a larger piece of ownership.
This additional funding beyond the seed stage is critical to start-ups that are focused on deep science and deep tech.
As I have noted before in this column, there is an investing lacuna across the entire world of the sciences; start-ups can find seed funding through grants but fall into a crevasse soon afterwards, since critical follow-on funding for series A and series B rounds of capital injection are often absent. Investors fear deep science and deep tech start-ups since their route to commercialization seems longer than that for start-ups based solely on digitizing existing business models.
The investors’ fear is unfounded. Some months ago, I wrote of Jeanette Wing, previously a senior executive at Microsoft and now a data science engineering professor at Columbia University. Wing recounts her days at Microsoft, where she realized that the company had stepped in to fund research where traditional funding did not exist. The role that Microsoft played in funding data science research ten or twelve years ago was pivotal to the advances we see today. Wing says she used to remind the CEO and CFO of that firm that they would not be making certain revenues had they not invested in the space a decade ago.
It is good to see the investing world slowly waking up to start-ups in science.
Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20billion in complex, first-of-a-kind-sourcing transactions.