Elad Gil Wants You To Live Longer
What the storied angel investor thinks about Miami, YC, the market downturn, and fending off death
Elad Gil has gotten a lot of stuff right. He invested early in Stripe, Airbnb, and Instacart. Color, the company he co-founded and chairs, is now worth $4.6 billion. He wrote presciently about the pandemic in February 2020.
Gil calls himself an “angel hybrid,” though to many he’s the quintessential solo capitalist, someone who runs their own investing shop and competes with entire venture capital firms.
What does that mean exactly? Well, he has a $620 million fund to invest in basically whatever he wants with the backing of the Harvard Endowment. During the pandemic, Gil led or co-led late stage funding rounds in TripActions, Anduril, Applied Intuition, and Retool. He also cut late stage checks into Clubhouse and Lattice.1
In late October 2021 Gil says that he slowed down the pace of investing. “Everything in the private markets felt really off,” he says. “The pace felt off, the lack of diligence being done felt off, the valuations — everything just felt kind of distorted. It just felt like a good time to say, maybe it’s worth slowing down a little bit and seeing what comes.”
Gil and I spoke for about an hour and twenty minutes over two video chats. We talked about a lot of things — his investing strategy, the hype around Miami, YC’s growing investment pace, the market downturn, and the media’s seeming hostility toward unfettered speech.
But Gil was most eager to talk about a subject that’s often been met with eyerolls: life extension research. The HBO show Silicon Valley mocked blood transfusions. Back in 2016, tech media staple Jeff Bercovici wrote an iconic tech story bearing the headline, “Peter Thiel Is Very, Very Interested in Young People’s Blood.”
So I respect Gil for just being willing to go on the record about this easily sensationalized topic. He’s convinced that if there were a Manhattan-style project to extend life, we could see real gains in our lifetime. “I think in like 10 to 20 years, you could have really good drugs,” he told me. “The data is all there in terms of genetic modifications that extend lifespan and caloric restriction and different drugs. It’s not like a debate of, Can you do it? It’s just, How are you going to do it?”
Investing in Life Extension
Gil believes that “genetics clearly show you can reduce, slow, or reverse aging.” He wrote me in a follow-up email, “This means you could impact it via genetics or via drugs or other means. Drugs seem most likely to me.”
He doesn’t think the medical world should continue to simply tick through the most common causes of human death — like cancer and heart disease — and try to come up with solutions to prevent them. Though fighting diseases is important work, he believes the National Institute for Aging has a single-minded focus on Alzheimer’s research and that it doesn’t spend nearly enough time fighting aging at its roots.
Gil thinks humanity needs to really get at the core of the aging process, to hunt for genes that tell the human body to start degrading. Life extension isn’t just about tacking on more years to the human lifespan but also maintaining a healthy body as we age.
“There’s lots and lots and lots of data that shows that aging is just a developmental process you can perturb,” Gil says. Specifically, he points to research on Caenorhabditis elegans, a closely studied multicellular organism. “You can knock out a gene in them, and they’ll live two, three times longer,” Gil told me. “They basically become adults, and they’re healthy adults for longer and then they crash out at the end.”
This isn’t the case of a Silicon Valley investor spending a few days reading science fiction and coming up with broad conclusions about the future of humanity. Gil trained for his Ph.D. in biology at MIT and he remembers working on C. elegans back when his work involved toiling in a lab, not cutting checks and advising billionaire founders.
Gil is an investor in two life extension-focused companies: BioAge Labs and Spring Discovery.
BioAge is run by Kristen Fortney. She received a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics from the University of Toronto and did her post-doctoral work at Stanford where she focused on aging and genetics. The company raised $90 million in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Gil at a $265 million post-money valuation in 2020, according to Pitchbook. In March 2021, BioAge started phase 2 clinical trials on a treatment for Covid in elderly patients.
Spring Discovery is led by Ben Kamens, a software engineer by training. The company raised a $32 million Series B round in September 2021 led by Hemant Taneja at General Catalyst. Gil also participated in the Series B and is the chairman of the company’s board of directors. The core of the company is a machine learning-based drug discovery program. The company also created a non-profit entity that ran a Covid trial on a generic drug meant to treat Covid.
Gil has also advised investor Laura Deming, who runs The Longevity Fund, an early investor in life extension companies.
Life extension research isn’t solely focused on huge genetic breakthroughs or finding some landmark drug. It can include studying calorie reduction and the body’s insulin levels, for instance.
I asked Gil if he’d done any diligence on blood transfusions.
“The field is called parabiosis,” he explained to me. “And basically, it’s a very old technology where you would join an old mouse and a young mouse’s circulatory systems. And what you’d find is that certain things in the old mouse would get dramatically better. You injured a muscle — that would grow faster. And it may have less cognitive decline and literally its fur would look better.”
He pointed to the company Alkahest — which sold to Grifols, a multinational producer of blood plasma-based products, for $146 million — as one sign that the industry had promise.
Gil argues that drug companies are failing to make headway on extending the human lifespan partly because these health care giants aren’t particularly functional. They’re missing a key ingredient that makes Silicon Valley work: entrepreneurial founders.
“The analogy would be all your tech companies are 40 years old or more. And so, the main players in tech are IBM, HP, and like two other IBMs,” Gil says. In this world, “startups are built to flip to IBM to support their mainframe business and they’re run by IBM execs,” he says. “So effectively, we’d have no iPhone and we’d have no cloud.”
He believes that government regulation has slowed progress to a crawl and that the rapid speed of vaccine development for Covid-19 is proof of what is possible if government and big business actually aligned to try to combat death itself.
He supports government investment in the life extension industry but believes that government research needs to be set up so that it’s competitive with itself. “Why shouldn’t there be three different National Cancer Institutes all competing for distribution of dollars?” he asked. “I think you can do things in the context of government, but then you have to think about renewal. Because otherwise government agencies are monopolies and monopolies have no reason to change.”
What About Theranos?
Gil has written somewhat defensively about Theranos, penning a blog post in September 2021 titled, “The False Narrative Around Theranos.” He argued that startups simply don’t lie about their products or services.
An increasing portion of the discourse in the USA today seems to be anti-tech, anti-maker, and anti-success. This stance probably reflects more of what is currently happening in the people writing these negative pieces (or opining in articles) rather than in the tech industry itself. Theranos is being used as a catchall example to drive this false narrative that people can not do good work, benefit millions of people, and make money, without somehow being nefarious. I encourage you to not buy into this false hype. :)
In our conversation, I asked him what gave him confidence that he wouldn’t just fund another Theranos with his out-there life extension investments. “It’s scientific diligence. It’s — does this thing both make logical sense, but then does it actually work in the context of animal trials or whatever sets of signal you use.”
I, foolishly, reacted approvingly to that by saying, “expertise, yes.”
I knew I’d violated a Silicon Valley shibboleth as he gave me a wordless, monotone sort of groan.
“It’s just doing diligence and like questioning data,” he replied. He explained that in another context he would be complaining about people like me in the media class writing that “experts and fact-checkers agree.”
Yes, he had a Ph.D. in biology and research experience. But, in his accounting, this wasn’t a matter of expertise but of an open-minded pursuit of knowledge and rational thinking.