Health, Wellness & Biotech Startups Venture

For 2022, Here’s What Startups Are Doing To Extend Our Lifespans

If you’re reading this, it means you too have made it through another year. And, like the longevity-focused investors and entrepreneurs out there, you’re probably thinking about how healthier living can boost the odds of many more to come.

Of course, longevity startups are concerned with a lot more than cutting back on cookies and hitting the gym. In areas from neurodegenerative disease prevention to age indexing to organ regeneration, upstart companies are working on breakthroughs with collective potential to radically extend the human lifespan.

Longevity investors predict 2022 will be a big year for the space. Below, we take a look at areas in which activity is accelerating.

Neurodegenerative disease

One of the most promising areas for startup innovation around longevity is the area of neurodegenerative disease.

“If you think about it, 90 percent of deaths after 50 are four indications: cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases. … While we have a lot of knowledge on the first three, we don’t know as much about neurodegenerative diseases,” said Sergey Young, founder of the Longevity Vision Fund, which invests in life extension breakthroughs. For startups, that means huge potential for progress.

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This past year has also seen some major developments. In November, human trials began for a nasal vaccine developed to prevent and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The FDA’s approval in 2021 of the Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab—a controversial decision—has also raised expectations that the agency will be more willing to fast-track treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

There’s also reason for optimism on the early diagnosis front. Because early indicators may be detectable for years and even decades before serious symptoms manifest, Young observes, there’s a long potential timeline to pursue preventative treatment.

Gene editing, epigenetic programming and organ regeneration

Gene editing, gene therapy and epigenetic programming are other areas ripe for life-extending advancements. They’re also spaces in which we’re seeing stepped-up funding. In recent months, this is particularly evident in the area of epigenetics, which seeks to enable therapies through influencing gene expression rather than altering the genetic code itself.

We put together a list of prominent companies in these spaces, most of which raised funding in 2021. Standouts include Tempus, an AI-enabled precision medicine company, Cambridge Epigenetix, a developer of epigenetic tools and analytics, and Chroma Medicine, focused on epigenetic editing.

Advancements in regenerative medicine and organ replacement also have potential to be major contributors to longer lifespans. Here, a host of startups and growth-stage companies are working on technologies that, if successful, could add years to the typical lifespan. (We’ve aggregated a sample list of venture-backed companies here.)

For 2022, Young said he will be paying close attention to portfolio company LyGenesis, a Pittsburgh-based startup that uses lymph nodes to regrow organs inside our bodies. The company received FDA approval in 2021 for its first human trials, which are slated to start in January with a focus on end-stage liver disease.

Biological age index

You can’t cure what you can’t diagnose and measure. Thus, for age-related disease, rolling back the clock will require possessing a sharper understanding of how our minds and bodies are changing over time. In particular, we’ll do better taking precautions when the earliest indications of trouble arise to ward off more serious problems down the road.

Young is particularly enthusiastic about efforts to standardize and popularize biological age indexing, which reflects our age not in chronological terms but in biological ones. It’s a concept startups are embracing too, including Elysium Health, a provider of at-home tests that purport to measure how quickly we’ve been aging.

It’s a concept one could also see catching on in popular culture. Picture a fit 70-year-old bragging about having the biological age of a 59-year-old. Health buffs, meanwhile, could focus their efforts around meeting or maintaining a target biological age range.

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Silicon Valley and deep-tech startup circles, meanwhile, continue to be captivated with the notion of turning back the clock, notes Ben Kim, a venture associate at Playground Global.

“With the advent of new tools and new assays and new drugs, I think it’s only a matter of time before people will use these engineering principles to manufacture drugs that target  aging,” he said.

Age-defying unicorns

The past year set records for the minting of new startup unicorns across all industries. Yet even so, longevity is not a space where multibillion-dollar valuations are commonplace.

Still, if one looks at high-valuation late-stage companies, there are a few with significant implications for longevity that are hitting high valuations.

Valo Health, for instance, a data-driven drug development company operating in some areas with potential for longevity, announced plans this summer to go public via a merger with a Khosla Ventures special-purpose acquisition company at a $2.8 billion valuation. Although the deal was called off, Valo remains a unicorn startup.

Another big funding recipient is Insilico Medicine, which has raised more than $300 million to date for an AI drug development platform focused on cancer and age-related diseases.

One reason we don’t see more unicorns, Young postulates, is that few companies brand themselves as longevity-focused. Although many biotech breakthroughs will extend lifespans, the companies behind those innovations tend to define themselves around a particular therapeutic focus, such as oncology or organ transplantation.

That could change, however, as longevity-themed investments garner more attention from late-stage investors.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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