Silicon Valley Investor Backs $1 Million Prize

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Life is like a box of chocolates, and that bugs the heck out of Silicon Valley.

On Tuesday a group of doctors, investors, and researchers announced the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. The latest attempt to crack the code of life, it will award $1 million to teams of scientists that demonstrate a reversal of the aging process in test animals. About 10 teams have already signed up to compete for the prize, including researchers from nearby Stanford University, as well as the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and Washington University in St. Louis. “We spend more than $2 trillion per year on health care and do a pretty good job helping people live longer, but ultimately you still die,” says Dr. Joon Yun, a doctor, investor and the main backer of the prize. “The better plan is to end health care altogether.”

Mankind has spent centuries obsessing about ending aging for obvious reasons. Of late, Silicon Valley has emerged as one of the places most interested in the topic. Google (GOOG), for example, has created a biotech research house called Calico to develop therapies that may increase lifespans. It also employs Ray Kurzweil, who has proposed downloading one’s brain into a machine as a means of cheating death. And just last month, a Hyatt hotel in Silicon Valley played host to the Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference at which top scientists discussed “emerging regenerative medicine solutions for the diseases of aging.”

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In the case of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, the antiaging focus will be studying and altering heart rate variability. HRV is the measure of the change in time from one heartbeat to the next. Instead of looking at a person’s average heart beat of, say, 60 beats per minute, HRV monitors performance at the next layer down, providing a better indicator of how a person is reacting to stress or injury. A $500,000 prize will go to a team that can take an older mammal and bring its HRV characteristics back to those of a young adult mammal; another $500,000 will go to a team that can extend an animal’s lifespan by 50 percent.

Participants will be able to review the rules and register to compete until January 15 of next year. A number of research groups were consulted about the effort ahead of its official announcement and have already signed on to have a go at winning the prize. Their approaches include experiments with stem cells, gene modification, and electrical stimulation, all aimed at tweaking HRV.

Yun, a radiologist by training, served on the clinical staff at Stanford Hospital. He’s also spent about 15 years working as an investor at Palo Alto Investors, a hedge fund with more than $1 billion in assets that has focused on health-care companies. The firm is known for making on average one large investment per year. One of its recent successes was InterMune, a biotech company thatRoche (ROG) just agreed to acquire for $8.3 billion in cash. Palo Alto Investors had put $200 million into the company.

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According to Yun, the health-care system has not focused enough on restoring the body’s homeostatic capacity, its ability to operate at a healthy equilibrium. “Your intrinsic homeostasis erodes at 40,” he says. “Hangovers that used to last a day now last three days. Coughs drag on for months. You come off a roller coaster, and you feel awful, because you can’t self center and your blood vessels don’t recalibrate fast enough.” The goal with the prize would be to find a way to reverse these degrading processes and return the body to a more youthful state.

Yun says his father-in-law recently passed away at the age of 68, and this, combined with conversations with his friends, inspired him to tackle aging. “I come from an old school Korean farming family where you were just expected to till the farms and die,” he says. “There was something grand and dignified in that. But after my wife’s father died of something pretty preventable, I asked myself, ‘Why am I waiting to do something about this?’”

The idea to offer a prize came from Yun’s nanny, who is an acquaintance of Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy. The Schmidts have sponsored, among other things, a $2 million prize to study the health of the ocean.

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“Based on the rapid rate of biomedical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not if we can crack the aging code, but when will it happen,” says Keith Powers, the producer of the prize group. Yun has set aside a large chunk of money to fund not just this initial prize but subsequent attempts at solving the aging puzzle. “The prize is winnable, but I don’t think we will hit a grand slam on the first one,” he says. “I expect to be writing lots of checks.”