Human Longevity, Inc.

Posted by Pete Shanks March 6, 2014
Biopolitical Times

Craig Venter, the genomics and synthetic biology pioneer, launched a new company on March 4, Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI). The press release describes it as:

a genomics and cell therapy–based diagnostic and therapeutic company focused on extending the healthy, high performance human life span

HLI has raised $70 million, enough for 18 months of operations, partly from Illumina, which makes genome sequencing machines, two of which HLI has bought so far. The rest is from a few venture capital companies and/or individuals (details are sketchy), several of whom have invested in Venter's Synthetic Genomics company, which he will also continue to run.

The company seems to be put together by a tightly-knit group with multiple interconnections in the biotech and broader techie and indeed transhumanist world. The official co-founders are Venter, Bob Hariri, of Celgene Cellular Therapeutics, and Peter Diamandis, best known for the X Prize and Singularity University.

Diamandis seems to be the main fundraiser, which may explain the investment of the noted transhumanist Martine Rothblatt, who inter alia was executive producer of the documentary The Singularity Is Near. Hariri is a trustee of the J. Craig Venter Institute and on the advisory board for the Archon Genomics X Prize, which is chaired by Venter and connects them both with Diamandis.

The new company already has partnerships with the Venter Institute, Metabolon Inc., whose Scientific Advisory Board is graced by Venter and his colleague Hamilton Smith, and the University of California, San Diego, which has four representatives on the HLI Scientific Advisory Board.

It's a small world, right?

Asked on this conference call if HLI would be in touch with the new Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, Venter blandly noted that Larry Goldstein, who heads the Center, is on the HLI advisory board. Diamandis added:

"Stay tuned for more announcements on the stem cell side."

HLI seems to be squarely focused on the growing contingent of aging, and sometimes affluent, baby boomers. According to The New York Times:

Dr. Diamandis said the goal was not to make people live forever, but rather to make "100 years old the next 60."

It's not entirely clear how they are going to do that, but genome sequencing certainly comes into it. Venter has spoken casually about sequencing everyone in the country, with one focus being to find protective alleles: he himself has a "slightly increased risk" for Alzheimer's but shows absolutely no sign of amyloid plaque buildup (about 5:00 in this video), so "obviously, I have genes that are protecting me from getting Alzheimer's disease."

Stem cells are somehow relevant, and HLI will be sequencing cancer tumors as well as whole genomes. However, when pressed by Science writer Elizabeth Pannisi (on the conference call) as to how they could legally and ethically make commercial use of patients' data gathered for research the best Venter could come up with was:

"We're still working out a lot of these issues."

They face some stiff competition, including:

  • BGI, the Chinese sequencing behemoth, which leaked plans for a partial $400 million IPO later this year, also wants to sequence the world (don't miss the movie); Venter claims that his Illumina machines are newer and better than BGI's Illumina machines but "we can't have enough players."

  • The Google-backed Calico, which now features Ray Kurzweil (still hoping to be "functionally immortal"), remains tiny so far but hopes to produce "the ultimate disruptive technology."

  • Editas, the genome editing company founded by, among others, George Church, may overlap with Venter's market. Church seems skeptical about HLI, whose plan he thinks is "all over the place."

  • Knome, a whole-genome-analysis company (founded by, among others, George Church) closed a $13 million financing round in January.

  • P5, a Sony-Illumina-M3 collaboration, was supposed to launch in February; it may be delayed but it seems to be part of a well-thought-out effort on the part of Sony to move heavily into the emerging high-tech medical market.

Venter, of course, is undaunted. He still firmly believes in the medical and commercial benefits of genomics. Asked if his vision for HLI was the same as his vision for Celera back in the 1990s, "where information from genomes would be sold to subscribers to lead to new therapeutics and diagnostic tests," he replied:

"This is Celera on steroids and cocaine."

Really? That's an ill-advised metaphor. How much better the company will do than its predecessor remains to be seen. Are Venter, Diamandis and Hariri talking themselves, as well as their investors, into a technophile fantasy of genetic omnipotence?

Previously on Biopolitical Times: