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David Gobel
On June 9, I had the pleasure to speak with Mr. David Gobel, Founder and CEO of the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to furthering life extension research. For those unfamiliar, life extension (or “longevity”) research is scientific study of how to allow humans to live healthier, longer lives. An example mentioned in our conversation is creating artificial organs to replace organs that become diseased. Other areas include searching for the root causes of aging, determining which genes are possessed by animals that live really long lives, et cetera. In all, life extension research is a nascent, cutting-edge field that appears to be growing in demand, based on the increasing funding of organizations such as MF. 

In this interview, we learn about Mr. Gobel’s motivation for founding the Methuselah Foundation, the economics of the budding longevity funding industry, and the strategic course of the Methuselah Foundation.

Q: First 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?

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A:
 I got to be the CEO of the foundation because I founded it in 2001, incorporated the foundation. Then in 2003 Aubrey DeGray 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? At the time, I was working as CEO of a company called Worlds Inc., which invented shared virtual worlds over the internet with avatars and it occurred to me when I went to visit this person that not only were they medically challenged, but they were also socially challenged. This person was 16 years old and they were stuck in the hospital instead of going to school being with their friends, living with the idea of life or death or never moving the rest of their body ever again. […] 

So that was, I suppose you can say was the start of my path down a medical, philanthropic path. My company was working with a new foundation at the time, the Star Bright Foundation, which was cofounded by Steven Spielberg and he was on the board of a directors of a company that I cofounded earlier. In any case, through a variety of circumstances, we got together. They were looking for a way to combine technology, medicine, and Hollywood to help sick kids but didn’t know exactly what to do.  So I proposed a shared virtual world of the kind that I just described to you. They loved it, we built it; it became the Star Bright pediatric world that premiered in Pittsburgh in 2005. It became a big deal and went into well over 100 children’s hospitals so that kids can go out and play!

Q: How about the concept of longevity in particular? What motivated you to pursue that?

A: I had semiretired after I sold two of the earlier companies. So 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.  […]

Shortly thereafter I came up with the concept of escape velocity, which Aubrey loved and publicized – we were working well together then – that’s when I founded the foundation to extend the healthy human lifespan.

Q: Who do you think are the most prolific longevity-funding organizations?

A: 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, and when it happens, it’s either your choice or a good thing”. We think that’s a very powerful contribution that we’ve been able to make to the conversation. […]

I would say that organization like DARPA and In-Q-tel who are well known in the longevity community fund a great deal of what will turn out to be longevity science. So for instance, if you look at Anthony Atala’s efforts in tissue engineering and regeneration and also other organizations’ efforts in stem cell rejuvenation, you’ll find a huge amount of funding from organizations like Surgeon of the Army, from DARPA, and from In-Q-Tel on the instrumentation on the genomics side. So there are other organizations that are actually using that money to make the breakthroughs but in terms of funding, that’s a huge source.

Q: And which would be the top one or two longevity research organizations, labs or other groups that you think are making the most publications on the issue of longevity?

A: I don’t really think that publication is the way to deal with this. Most, in my opinion, publications are exercises in fundraising and incrementalism but that’s just an opinion and of course there are always exceptions to that opinion. But I’d say that Atala’s group Wake Forest has had a tremendous impact on progress in the area of tissue regeneration and tissue engineering and they’re certainly high profile in that regard and of course they’ve published a lot and have actually gotten something close to the clinic, the engineered a bladder and so forth. 

I would also add that the 3-dimensional tissue printer developed by Gabor Forgacs and now being sold by Organovo is a huge contribution because that printer can be sold to tissue engineering centers of excellence around the whole world. So we’re at the tools stage, and the tools are actually becoming available. 

Q:  Moving on to the Methuselah Foundation: What are you doing this year that is new?

A:  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 found 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. 

Q:  And will you be raising special funds for that kind of an investment, or will you be using funds that you already expect to have from your existing fundraising?

A:  We may seek additional funding. What I found is that what we’re looking for is a very, very specific kind of animal. We’re looking for disruptive kinds of approaches that can hit the market within 18 months and not require FDA approvals. So you can imagine that that narrows the field dramatically and so Organovo fit that profile. If they did not decide to create the printer first, than it would not have fit the profile because there’s no way they would have gotten the revenue in 18 months trying to get a biological part past the FDA; it would have been 5 years minimum and so you can see that our goal is to have an early an impact, successful enterprise as possible.

Q:  So is it correct that you’re looking into the technologies that wouldn’t require FDA approval? And I gather the reason for that is not to have to go through that long and expensive process?

A:  Well, yes, and more especially, if presuming the idea is good, I want it to be available. Think about the frustration, and I’m sure you’ve expressed the frustration of all the things you’ve seen on TV or read about as really, really good outcomes in some research but then it seems like it never gets to a doctor enough to use it. There’s a tremendous amount of dying along the way, both people and technologies.

Q:  Considering this constraint on technologies that you’re looking for, it’s not going to be a pharmaceutical or a medical device that interacts with the human body directly, correct?

A:  That may or may not be the case. Let me give you a simple illustration: Is there a way to get a drug that would be helpful to you that might be a combination of multiple drugs? The answer is not easily, but when you think about it, there’s a whole industry that’s not well known called Compounding Pharmacies, where they can take, under the control of States, not FDA. Since these are the equivalent of doctors, they can create a cocktail of medicines specifically for an individual. Were you aware of that?

Q:  I’m aware that at the doctor level different drug prescriptions are put together by the physician for a particular patient, however if it’s a new drug comprised of different drugs combined into one, it’s my understanding new FDA testing is required.

A:  Well, check on Google for Compounding Pharmacists and you’ll find that there is this group, doctors will use this group in order to create these drugs that individually have already been approved as well as potentially supplements, and they can compound a specific treatment. So what I’m saying is that I look for out-of-the-box areas where there may be ways of using information technology to accelerate the emergence of individual options that don’t currently exist in a one-size pretty much fits-all paradigm. 

That was just an example; there are many other business models that can be disruptively affective in a positive way.

Q:  From an economic and business perspective, competition between different organizations doing similar things can enhance progress in both of them by improving their products. For example, two pharmaceutical firms competing to create better cancer drugs. However, there are also times when partnership or consolidation or mergers, there are times when joining forces enhances progress as well by pulling resources and for other economic reasons. So looking at the current longevity funding industry, as small as it is, what do you think would cause the most progress from here on out? More fragmentation, which is different companies competing and improving what they do individually, or more consolidation?

A:  I could do the political thing and answer the question you didn’t ask and say that the most important thing that could be done would be to make it clear at a regulatory level that the use of autologous cells in medical treatment is not a drug but that it is a medical procedure which would not require FDA intervention but would require medical licensing. That would take 10 years out of the difficulty and confusion of the whole space and would therefore facilitate large pharmaceutical companies being willing to put a lot more of their risk capital in this space and would facilitate the buying out of rock-star start-up companies that right now might starve to death in a difficult economic climate.

Organization such as Methuselah Foundation and SENS foundation and other that are longevity or geriatrically focused, who institutionally oriented, generally speaking, and not sufficiently concerned in getting results that can get to the clinic within, let’s call it 5 years. So the question then comes to want to have as many organizations as possible to have as many chips on their roulette table as possible so that Darwinian, let’s just say “Darwinnowing” can occur and the ones most affective in pleasing the public will survive. Did that make sense? 

Q:  Yes. It sounds like, as far as longevity-funding organizations go, you believe in fragmentation, having more players in the market are probably going to be the best for progress on the whole.

A:  And I further believe that the greatest gain will come from for-profit organizations, which is why, at the moment, I’m funding for-profit organizations with a strong focus on extending the healthy human lifespan. Remember, at the foundation, we helped cofound the SENS approach and SENS foundation and that’s a long, excellent strategy. Well, there’s no sense in Methuselah Foundation doing the same thing so as part of a, let’s just call it a confederation, they’re working at the molecular level and we’re working at the cellular and above level, the macro-level, so we’re synergistic. Other organizations are more interested in trying to find tens of millions of dollars to do long-term studies and I don’t think that’s going to be a successful strategy. It will be over-run by organizations like Attala. By over-run, I mean someone’s got a chemical rocket versus a light-speed rocket.

Q:  What collaborations, partnerships, or other types of relationships does Methuselah Foundation have with other longevity funding organizations, if any. One example would be the Ellison Foundation.

A:  Ellison has been a donor to the Methuselah Foundation. We’ve had many organizations that have been supporters such as the Thiel Foundation, the Ellison, The Paul Glenn Foundation.

Q:  Are there any other collaborations with any funding or research-focused organizations?

A:  We are, I suppose closest to SENS foundation, we do many things together. We also co-founded the Super Centenarian Foundation which did the world’s first autopsies on super centenarians to figure out not how they lived so long, but what exactly they died from, which is a question I posed during the discussion about founding that organizations so they did the autopsies and there’s a paper talking about what came up and what can be done about it.

Q:  What is your relation with SENS in particular?

A:  We are their fiscal sponsor. They recently received their 501c3 tax-deductible exemption from the IRS but from the 2 or 3 years where they did not have that, we were their fiscal sponsor. We also continue to provide them donations from donors and they recently donated funds to help fund the NewOrgan Prize that we’re producing. 

Q:  How far into the future do you think you and your team plan the strategy and goals of the organization?

A:  We are looking at what we can accomplish and deliver to end users within 18 months and 5 years and SENS is focused on 10-15 years. 

Q:  How far to do you plan the strategic maneuvers of Methuselah Foundation, such as deciding to launch a new fundraising campaign, etc.?

A:  I would call those tactical or operational and I would say a year, but we’re very flexible and are able to pretty much turn on a dime because we’re a very lean organization that is very entrepreneurially-oriented. 

Q:  What are one or two key tactical activities that we might see in the next year?

A:  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.”

Q:  The goal in 5 years is to have a functional replacement kidney and a company that is able to manufacture these?

A:  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. So 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!
 


Comments

Robert Church
06/16/2011 21:21

I wish David Gobel huge success in getting these companies to be successful and helping humanity. It was great reading about this interview as I read often about MEME LONGEVITY AND Methuselah Foundation along with H+ and Ray Kurzeill. I hope to see this organization become well known in the main stream media and more people would be involved (offering funds or time) so we can help the aging and the sick much sooner.

I wish you the very best.

Robert C.


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12/30/2011 14:27

good post

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01/16/2012 18:42

Dear Mr. Gobel!
Your company Methuselah Foundation and Aubrey de Grey’ SENS foundation working to develop artificial organs. OK. It is justified for internal organs when the organ is not working and the organism dies. But the external organ, our skin, that will eventually wear out and destroyed, the organism can repair and rejuvenate itself. If it has our help. But this unfortunately no one does. And if you do, first rejuvenate the old skin and internal organs will rejuvenate, the entire body. We talked about this at our meeting in Washington. There are no any aging programs in our organism. No genes of aging, there are any limits on life span. The organism can work the century, if it get the right service. Skin combines the internal organs in one organism, feeds them and its destruction (visible to the naked eye) causes senile disease of internal organs and death of the organism. As for the old oil filter stops the motor vehicle. It is easy to understand. The skin is the lungs, and kidneys, and external brain and nervous system. Its destruction leads to the death of the body. It is very desirable rejuvenation of the old man to begin with its rejuvenation of the old dilapidated skin. It's easier and cheaper and more effective, and tested medicine. Sorry you do not understand this.
Best regards, Valery Chuprin

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01/27/2012 23:08

THX for info

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