In mid-2022, a startup company named Retro Biosciences came into public view, and it announced that it had obtained $180 million for a bold task: increasing the average life expectancy of human beings by 10 years. Just a short year ago, the company was headquartered in a warehouse near San Francisco. There were many containers on the concrete floor, where scientists worked and did experiments.
Retro said that as part of the "radical task", it would "stimulate the speed" and "tighten the feedback loop" in order to stop aging or even reverse it. But it is vague about the source of its funds. According to reports, it was still a "mysterious" startup, and its investors were anonymous.
Now MIT Science and Technology Review can reveal that all the investment was provided by Sam Altman, a 37-year-old senior entrepreneur and CEO of OpenAI.
Altman spent almost all his time on OpenAI, an artificial intelligence company, whose chat bots and electronic art programs have always been unique in the field of science and technology because of their comparable human capabilities.
But altman’s money is another matter. He said that he had emptied his bank account to fund two other very different but equally ambitious goals: pursuing unlimited energy and prolonging life.
He said in 2021 that one of the projects is Helion Energy, a nuclear fusion power generation startup, and he has invested more than 375 million US dollars in the company. The other is Retro, who invested a total of $180 million in the same year.
"This is a lot of money. I basically invested all my current assets in these two companies, "altman said.
Altman’s investment in Retro has never been disclosed before. This is one of the largest personal investments ever made by a startup company seeking to increase human life span.
Altman has always been a well-known figure in Silicon Valley. He used to run Y Combinator, a business incubator in San Francisco, but with the release of ChatGPT by OpenAI and its popularity all over the world, his name has been known all over the world.
It is reported that the breakthrough based on artificial intelligence technology has turned this seven-year-old company into a "member of the technology giant club". Microsoft promised to invest $10 billion in it, and altman, who has 1.5 million Twitter followers, is consolidating his status as a technology tycoon, and his invention will definitely change the society profoundly.
Altman is not on Forbes’ list of billionaires, but he is still very rich. His extensive investments include early shares in companies such as Stripe and Airbnb.
He said: "In the biggest bull market in history, I have always been an investor in technology stocks at an early stage."
Hard core technology
Now, in his words, he has invested his capital in a level that is "orders of magnitude far beyond the Y Combinator era". He has been betting these funds on several technical fields that he thinks will have the greatest positive impact on mankind: artificial intelligence, energy and anti-aging biotechnology.
Helion, headquartered in Everett, Washington, is eager to conquer atoms to create an "infinite clean energy". Joe Betts-LaCroix, CEO and co-founder of Retro, said that the company’s goal is to "prolong human life by discovering how to rejuvenate our bodies".
All these companies, including OpenAI, are what altman called "hard-core" start-ups-companies that need a lot of investment to make scientific progress and master difficult technologies. This is a shift for altman, from supporting fast-growing applications and companies in the era of Web 2.0 prosperity to supporting scientists engaged in long-term research.
Hard science companies need higher capital costs, but altman believes that their bigger goals are more likely to attract talented engineers. He recently quoted Daniel Burnham, a Victorian architect, on Twitter: "Don’t make small plans, they don’t have the magic to stimulate the blood flow."
Although nuclear fusion and life extension may be the most incredible projects (some researchers even think it’s daydreaming), few people believed that artificial intelligence would pass the medical school exam in 2023, just like ChatGPT, a chat robot of OpenAI, did this year.
Altman said that in fact, hard-core startups may have a better chance of success than simple companies. This is because there may be a thousand start-ups developing photo sharing applications, but only a few companies can build experimental nuclear fusion reactors.
enlarge the scale
Altman said that the areas he has been betting on are those where he can see some potential trends, so that technologies that seem impossible today are expected to spread quickly. This is what happened to OpenAI, which was established in 2015.
The company focuses on a machine learning technology called transformer and has steadily expanded its scale. In the process of creating its products, it only spent more than $1 billion on purchasing computing power.
The resulting model (program) can create pictures and complex text paragraphs in a few seconds, even close to human works. "We have an algorithm that we can learn, and as it performs more operations, it seems that it can be further extended," altman said.
As for the realization of controlled nuclear fusion, the trend that altman sees is bigger and stronger magnets. In order to fix the 100 million-degree thermal plasma vortex in the reactor core, we need very powerful magnets. Altman said that he initially invested about $10 million in Helion, but later increased the stakes because he was "very confident".
Although the problem of nuclear fusion has not been solved (reactors still use more energy than they produce), he has been urging Helion to list how to build several reactors every day-if nuclear fusion wants to replace coal and natural gas as the main power source, increasing production capacity is a necessary part.
"That’s what I’ve learned from my career. Scale it up and see what happens, "altman said.
About eight years ago, altman became interested in the so-called "young blood" research. In these studies, scientists stitched young mice and old mice together so that they shared a blood system. Surprisingly, these old mice seem to have partially recovered their vitality.
This is a terrible experiment, but to some extent, it is very simple. Altman, then the head of Y Combinator incubator, asked his staff to investigate what progress anti-aging scientists were making.
He said: "It feels like this is a result I didn’t expect, and that is another result I didn’t expect. This means that something is happening quietly … Maybe there is a secret hidden here, and it is easier to find than we thought. "
In 2018, Y Combinator opened a special course for biotech companies, inviting companies with "radical anti-aging plans" to apply, but soon after, altman left Y Combinator to concentrate on his increasingly busy work in OpenAI.
By 2020, some researchers in California showed that they could achieve the effect similar to obtaining "young blood" by replacing the plasma of old mice with saline and albumin. This shows that the real problem lies in the "aging blood". Just by diluting it (and the toxins in it), we may be one step closer to drugs that resist or even cure aging.
Bates Lacroiva recalled, "Sam called me and said,’ My God, have you seen this plasma intervention paper?’ That’s not what I said, but the general idea is similar. Bates Lacroiva was a part-time biotechnology partner of Y Combinator and now leads a gathering of longevity lovers.
Bates Lacroix agrees that it’s cool and some companies should pursue it. "How about I fund you to do it?" Altman said.
But Bates Lacroix was already studying a different idea. He just finished an early joint venture project, a company called Vium. The company tried to "digitize" the rat population and added cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor the experiment. Vium has raised more than 50 million dollars, but it has not been successful. That year, it was merged into another biotechnology company, which bought its assets for $2.6 million.
Bates Lacroiva’s new plan is to set up a company to pursue cell reprogramming-another hot area involving the technology of making cells younger through genetic engineering. He has collaborated with Chinese scholar Ding Sheng Ding who has developed a new method of reprogramming cells. Bates-Lacroiva also believes that the process that cells use to process toxins (called autophagy) may be a direction worth exploring.
Altman’s answer is: "Why don’t you do all these things?"
"I will. I will set up a multi-project company around the biology of aging, which is a big project, "Bates Lacroiva recalled." Then he said,’ Great, let’s do it.’ "
The new company needs a lot of money-enough to keep it going for at least seven or eight years while conducting research, encountering setbacks and overcoming them. And it needs to finish the work quickly. The expenses of many biotech startups are decided by the board of directors, but in Retro, Bates-Lacroiva has all the decision-making power. "There is no bureaucracy here," he said. "I am a bureaucracy."
For example, Bates Lacroix did not wait for scarce laboratory space, but filled a warehouse with 40 prefabricated containers and used them as laboratories. This means that he can quickly carry out the first experiment, including repeating some plasma work on mice. Bates Lacroiva presented some preliminary results at a conference in 2022, saying that mice undergoing plasma exchange seemed to become stronger.
Mysterious start-up company
Retro employees submit experimental memos every week to record which work is progressing smoothly and which work is frustrated. Bates Lacroix said that he usually calls altman on weekends to tell him the highlights, and altman sometimes makes suggestions.
However, up to now, things related to this company in altman have been kept secret. This is a decision made by Bates Lacroiva, who wants Retro to open its own path. Altman agreed, because he tried to be "very careful not to hide the brilliance of the CEOs I worked with."
When Bates Lacroiva officially disclosed the company information in mid-2022, in a series of tweets, he still didn’t disclose altman’s name, but said that he was "lucky to get the initial capital of 180 million dollars", which was enough to "safely" support the company to run until 2030, when it planned to realize "the first proof of concept to extend life".
People familiar with the company’s thinking say it’s also because altman’s name may be a distraction. Of course, he is famous, but this reason may be wrong. Although altman’s position in the entrepreneurial world is unparalleled, his reputation is almost nonexistent in the biological laboratory and pharmaceutical industry, and a person’s scientific record is the most important in this circle.
"I’ve never heard of the name Sam altman," said Irina Conboy, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, although her work on plasma has amazed Sam. But she is really more familiar with Bates Lacroiva and his research on longevity.
"100 million is just a number, not a breakthrough," Comboy said.
Every technology also has risks. As far as artificial intelligence is concerned, it is chat bots that may spread lies and false information. As for reversing the age, if it is really effective, one of the risks often mentioned is public dissatisfaction, especially if it will be offered to the rich like altman first.
The basis of this idea is that if altman’s financial support is magnified conspicuously, Retro may become a victim and be classified as a vanity project misled by billionaires in pursuit of immortality.
We have reason to be so worried. In 2016, Peter Thiel, one of altman’s mentors, was ridiculed by the media as a "vampire looking for young victims" after he expressed interest in receiving anti-aging blood transfusion treatment. A year later, HBO’s spoof program "Silicon Valley" released an episode called "Blood Donation Boy". In the film, the CEO of a fictional technology company is in a meeting, and his vein is connected with that of a handsome young man called "blood transfusion assistant".
"We really don’t want to see those old billionaires pay for plasma donors," Bates Lacroiva said in the summer of 2022. Instead, he said, the company hopes to find more "credible" interventions, such as drugs that mimic the effect of blood replacement, for millions of people to use.
"We don’t want to treat billionaires with prejudice. I’m just saying that we don’t want to see treatments that are super expensive, awkward and difficult to implement. "
Altman said that his personal anti-aging methods include "trying to eat healthily, exercise and get enough sleep" and taking metformin. Metformin is a diabetes drug, but it is very popular in Silicon Valley because it may make people without diabetes healthier. "I hope I can use Retro therapy one day!" Altman said.
OpenAI in the field of anti-aging
Anti-aging research seems to be a promising investment field. One reason is that it has not received much funds in the past, at least relative to the scale of the research project. According to the data of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the United States-about $4.3 trillion, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the GDP of the United States-it is used for medical care, most of which is used to treat the elderly. Longevity researchers generally believe that if a drug can delay aging, it may help delay a series of serious diseases, including cancer and heart disease.
Bates Lacroiva said that in order to have the widest impact, he is looking for interventions that can scale up and affect "millions or billions" of people.
However, when Retro lifted the veil, the research on the problem of old age was becoming very popular. The Saudi government said that it will provide 1 billion dollars for related research every year, and an organization called Altos Laboratory has been established, claiming that it has 3 billion dollars. Famous investors are also involved, such as Yuri Milner, and even Jeff Bezos is rumored.
Compared with these investments, altman’s bet looks relatively small, even making Retro look insignificant. One of its projects is to test the rejuvenation technology on T cells, which are part of the immune system and play an important role in fighting infection and avoiding cancer.
These cells are particularly useful because they can be removed, rejuvenated in the laboratory and sent back to the patient. But other startups have similar goals, including Altos and NewLimit, a biotechnology company founded by cryptocurrency billionaire Brian Armstrong in 2022.
The competition for researchers is particularly fierce. Altos persuaded 24 university professors to leave their jobs and offered millions of dollars in salary and other benefits, which absorbed almost half of the top scientists in the field of reprogramming.
But Bates Lacroix also managed to attract some top talents. In 2022, he flew to Switzerland to visit Alejandro Ocampo, a researcher at Lausanne University. In 2016, Ocampo was the first scholar to study the rejuvenation of mice, and his research helped trigger the current craze for longevity investment.
"I’m glad to see Joe coming to see me in person," Ocampo said. He was so grateful for the attention he received that he later agreed to become a paid consultant for the company.
He also said that Bates Lacroiva is willing to accept his view that the age reversal of human beings will not happen in the short term. Some of Ocampo’s recent experiments explored why the reprogramming method he studied would kill some mice instead of making them live longer.
Ocampo said: "Some optimists think that we will achieve eternal life in 10 years, while some pessimists say that we will never prolong human life. As a realist, my personal opinion is that many people are choosing simple and fast experiments, but if we do the same, I don’t think we will go very far. Because this will not be an easy road. "
Ocampo said that Bates Lacroix convinced him that Retro was willing to explore these basic problems with its own funds. "They want to promote the development of science, not just pursue short-term goals," he said. "Other companies want to find an application scenario immediately, but they are willing to spend time exploring basic science."
Bates Lacroiva did not discuss Retro’s funding sources with Ocampo. Ocampo said that he didn’t know that altman was funding the startup until he was interviewed by MIT Science and Technology Review.
In an interview, altman didn’t worry about the competition from other companies. He believes that most biotechnology companies are accustomed to slow action and are usually "not good at management". He believes that the research on longevity needs an "OpenAI-style effort".
Altman said: "Retro’s main task is to become a truly excellent biological start-up company, because this is a rare thing. It combines great science with the resources of big companies in the spirit of a startup company. This is our current project. "