CEO Dave Gobel describes the dynamic evolution of Methuselah Foundation in this interview with cool blogger Aaron Keefe, published on his blog Pondr. In this interview, we learn about Dave’s motivation for founding the Methuselah Foundation, the economics of the budding longevity funding industry, and the strategic course of the Methuselah Foundation.
For those who don’t know much about you and your background, could you tell us how you got to where you are now as the CEO of the Methuselah Foundation?
I got to be the CEO of the foundation because I founded it in 2001, incorporated the foundation. Then in 2003 Aubrey de Grey and I met and that’s when we began operations after all the government administrivia got established. So that’s how.
What got me interested in longevity is really a couple of things. I guess around 1994, a good friend was going downhill on a sled and ended up running up into a tree and becoming a quadriplegic. I have a serious streak of do-good-ism and it was frustrating to me to not be able to do anything. My background was in software entrepeneurship and what did I know about medicine or anything like that… So that was the start of my path down a medical, philanthropic path.
How about the concept of longevity in particular? What motivated you to pursue that?
I was around 46 or 47 when I began to realize that we were all on a one-way ride so I began to think about the typical stuff like supplements, exercise, diet and so forth. And because of an engineering, entrepreneurial mindset, I’m a voracious reader and read everything there was on the topics. I’m also a firm believer in a very simple manufacturing concept: it’s much better to fix a problem before there’s a problem.
Every step along the way where the problem where it gets worse, it gets 10 times more expensive to repair it until you need a heart transplant and you’re talking about multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars. But if you could pre-keep the atherosclerosis from happening than none of those costs and pains and suffering and so forth occur. So with that mindset, I began to look for what was in the literature and began the process of education.
Along the way, another family friend got diagnosed with leukemia and this person was unable to be treated with the treatment she needed because she was unable to fit the profile for the trial that would potentially benefit her. In any case, when she got to the point of severe straits, they were able to take her on as a, I guess, charity case that would not mess up their statistics so she got the operation, a bone marrow transplant, and from what I understand the operation was a success, but the trauma of the operation killed her. That made me very, very angry. Not at anybody, but at a system, that cannot decide whether what is the actual question: Your money or your life?
People have their feet in both canoes and it’s a tension that’s horrible. I understand it, I accept that it exists, but there needs to be ways to change the paradigm instead of continuing to fiddle with the paradigm around the edges. In other words, we’re being laced on the outside of a medical system that everyone knows is messed up and isn’t going to do anything.
So about longevity – if you can prevent these things from happening or you can reverse what’s already happened, than you’re doing two things: you’re preventing diseases that would have occurred from ever occurring, or at worse, they’re going to happen a whole lot later and in combination with the relatively fast advance of what I’ll call the digital medical personalized world incorporating genomics and mathometrics genome chips and all that stuff, that if you could put those diseases back, you would not die in the meantime and have the opportunity to take advantage of those things.
Who do you think are the most prolific longevity-funding organizations?
If by ‘prolific’ you mean having the highest impact, then I would say organizations such ourselves, the Methuselah Foundation and SENS foundation because the impact that we’ve had, we believe plays a significant part in changing the way people think about longevity from “It would be wrong to extend the lifespan”, “The idea of becoming immortal is wrong” (which of course we’ve never publicized) “The world is over-populated”, “We’re going to ruin the earth with all these people”…
Changing the conversation from “It’ll never happen, and if it could happen, it would be wrong” to “It’s inevitable that it will happen”. We think that’s a very powerful contribution that we’ve been able to make to the conversation.
What are you doing this year that is new?
Well, we’ve actually been doing it for a couple of years, but we haven’t been saying much about it because we are highly judicious about it, and that is we have a small but targeted investment fund that is called the Methuselah Life Science fund and we were the founding investor in Organovo. We were the ones who also suggested that instead of immediately trying to create bypass grafts, which is an excellent thing to do but very, very expensive, that they should commercialize the printer. Well, they took that idea on board and went ahead and did it after we helped them get formed and funding.
So what will be new this year is we will probably fund or help fund an additional longevity-oriented company. When these companies succeed, and so far all the companies we’ve invested in so far are doing just then, then there’s liquidity in that.
What are one or two key tactical activities that we might see in the next year?
We’re going to raise the profile of the NewOrgan Prize and we’re going to be adding a component to that prize which would talk about tissue preservation where, let’s say that there’s an organ that’s going to be engineered – let’s call it a kidney – the kidney’s been either engineered or harvested. So the prize will be for a technology (people typically think of cryogenics) that would allow the emergence of organ and macro-tissue banking. So that, I think, is a reasonably near-term, we’ll call it a 5 year timeline where the outcome desire is an industry where if a kidney is needed, there’s going to be a kidney and options among kidneys to help provide optimal matching, not just “here’s a kidney; take it or leave it”.
To be clear, the goal in 5 years is actually have a functional replacement kidney and the company to manufacture these?
No, the goal is to have an organ-banking technology so that an organ or tissues can be stored for a month at least. So let’s say you’re a police officer and someone shot you and you need a liver. Those are hard to get, just ask Mr. Jobs how hard those are to get on demand. But if there was a bank, you would have a selection of them. So there’s a thing called a blood bank, a sperm bank, a cord blood bank, and that needs to be raised to the size of about a heart or a kidney. And if you can do that, all of a sudden, there is a huge benefit that occurs and in addition to providing for organs on demand instead of hoping and praying, it lowers costs, and it will also benefit tissue engineering because if you think about it, if you’re building a biological construct, you don’t want it to begin to rot before you finish it.
That’s why it’s a two-phase prize. The first phase is organ/tissue banking, probably cryogenics, but who knows. The second phase is whole-new organs; I expect that would be won within 10 years. We’ll be raising that profile. We will probably announce an investment or the start up of another longevity oriented company and we also have a group of donors called The 300 and we told them that we would do the appropriate thing and erect a monument to their incredible support and so we’re going to announce that we’ve acquired some land where that will go and it’s a very cool location– I’ll leave it at that!
So Methuselites, looks like we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and even more to look forward to! Support us in this life-saving work and have your name engraved on a fantastic monument, and more importantly, live with the knowledge that you did your part in helping ensure a future where generations to come may live longer, healthier, and if an organ needs replacing, one built from their own cells will be made available. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? It will be.