The greatest investment opportunity in history
Jim Mellon is an optimist. Which is just as well, since he is one of the people trying to engineer a complete transformation in attitudes towards aging – attitudes within the medical profession, among the public at large, and crucially, in the investment community.
As an example of his optimism, Mellon says that, thanks largely to the vertiginous advances in artificial intelligence, “if you can stay alive for another ten to twenty years, and if you aren’t yet over 75, and if you remain in reasonable health for your age, you have an excellent chance of living to over 110 years old.” And he means living to 110 in very good health. Not dribbling or drooling. For the investment community, he argues that “the incremental addition of 30 years or so to average lifespans over the next two or three decades will represent the single greatest investment opportunity in recorded history.”
It’s a big claim, but Mellon already has some remarkable achievements to his name. His optimism served him well in his career as an investor before he became interested in longevity. He prospered in financial services in the 1980s, but his first really big break came during a business trip to Russia in 1994. Realising that shares in state companies were being sold by Russian citizens at a massive discount, he arranged for a suitcase containing $2 million in cash to be flown in from London, and in the course of a couple of days he spent the lot. A few weeks later the shares were worth $17 million. Today, Mellon is based in the Isle of Man, where he is the biggest landowner, and he shuttles between homes there and in Ibiza, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
He has also dabbled in politics, where he has the dubious distinction of being the person who introduced Nigel Farage to Arron Banks. Mellon’s optimism is even strong enough to allow him to think that Brexit might still turn out well.
The Big Bang in AI
But he abandoned politics some years ago, and now concentrates on investing, and in particular, investing in anti-aging technology. He has been a leading biotech investor for two decades, and since the Big Bang in AI in 2012, when Geoff Hinton finally got the backpropagation algorithm to work properly, and thus gave birth to deep learning, Mellon has seen the enormous potential of applying modern AI to longevity.
In 2016 he co-founded Juvenescence, a venture capital and development company focused on modifying aging and increasing human health span and longevity. Juvenescence raised $50 million in 2018 and another $100 million in 2019.
In April this year it launched its first consumer product, Metabolic Switch – pills which raises the level of ketones in the blood. Ketones are molecules produced by the body when it uses fat for fuel instead of sugar – which is a good thing. The usual way to achieve this is with a calorie restrictive diet, which most of us struggle to maintain.
Metabolic Switch is only available in the US at the moment, but no doubt there will be a few bottles on Mellon’s bathroom shelves. Understandably, Mellon is coy about what other anti-aging therapies he uses: we humans are all different, and what works for one can be harmful to another, so recommendations are perilous. But he does comment that just about every person he has met in the longevity space takes metformin, a treatment for diabetes which is currently in clinical trials for use as a general anti-aging drug.
Juvenescence was also an early investor in a company called Insilico, founded by Alex Zhavoronkov, which is one of the foremost exponents of the use of cutting-edge AI in longevity research – namely deep learning and Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), which pit two AI systems against each other in a competition to produce the best solution to a problem. Insilico works with mainstream pharmaceutical firms, and when Insilico span out a subsidiary, called Deep Longevity, which focuses specifically on longevity research, it was acquired by another of Mellon’s investment vehicles, Hong Kong-based Regent Pacific.
Mellon’s 2017 book on longevity (also called “Juvenescence”) explains his ambition for the space. Traditionally, when people get old they become “illderly”, because our role in life is to “learn, then earn, then retire and expire.” Now, to quote the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, “the idea is to die young – as late as possible.”
There is nothing inevitable about aging, or about its rate. Californian bristlecone pines are believed to live for 5,000 years, and there are long-lived mammalian creatures as well. Some marine creatures do not display any signs of aging at all, including hydra, jellyfish, planarian worms, and coral. Certain human cells have immortal characteristics too. When a woman gives birth, she produces a baby which is “new”. Her “germline” (reproduction-related) cells produce a child with no signs of age.
These and many other considerations combine with the unreasonable effectiveness of modern AI to lead some people to believe that significant advances in longevity are imminent. These advances probably cannot happen without the active participation of the wider pharmaceutical industry, and the acceptance by policy makers and regulators that aging is a disease, not just an unfortunate and inevitable component of the human condition. There is still considerable reluctance among major pharmaceutical companies to contemplate specific anti-aging therapeutic developments. But there are encouraging signs of this reluctance being challenged, especially at Novartis and AstraZeneca.
Like the dial-up internet
Beyond the pharma giants, Mellon reckons there are 255 companies which claim to be specifically targeting aging, of which 35 are listed on stock markets. But he thinks that only a minority of them are genuinely working to tackle aging, as opposed to one of the diseases it causes, like cancer, dementia, or heart disease. He likens the state of the longevity industry today to the internet industry of 20 years ago, when it was still in its dial-up phase, and downloading information (or, heaven forbid, images) was like sucking jelly through a straw. And although longevity will have such a massive impact on all of us that you might expect progress to be expedited, Mellon points out that the internet did not have to go through lengthy and expensive FDA trials at every step.
To help speed things along, he is involved with the launch of an industry association towards the end of this year. Members of the longevity industry are unusually collaborative and open with each other. The opportunity is vast, and it is far more important to increase the size of the pie than to squabble over shares in it.
Mellon is also funding longevity research at his alma mater, Oriel College in Oxford University. (Disclaimer: it’s also mine.) The university is a powerhouse for many kinds of science, but longevity is not prominent among them. The Mellon Longevity Science Programme helps fund the research of Professor Lynne Cox into the senescence of the human immune system.
What does the optimistic Mr Mellon think is possible within the next few decades? If the green shoots visible in the pharmaceutical and financial communities continue to grow, he thinks that by 2035 we could have some drugs in wide circulation with significant, proven anti-aging impacts. In addition, the first gene therapies could be starting to prove their value, although this may be a harder sell to the wider public. By 2050 it may be evident that some people are going to live to 150 years.
We live in interesting times.