Issue No. 147: The Quest to Live Forever

Illustration: Courtney Powell

Aging is a fact of life… or is it?

Hoping to uncover the secret to living forever, Silicon Valley immortalists have experimented with everything from young blood transfusions to gene injections.

Meanwhile, breakthrough studies have demonstrated age reversal or even tissue regeneration in animals like mice.

But can we crack the code for humans?

Living Longer

One of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, the average human life expectancy has more than doubled in the past hundred years.

With widespread medical advancements and the rise of health-tracking tech, many children born in a wealthy country are likely to live into their ninth decade and beyond.

While that’s reason to celebrate, this reality presents a new problem for humanity. The world’s centenarian population is projected to 8x by 2050, and addressing aging is a rising priority.

  • On average, families spend up to $140,000 to care for elderly adults with long-term care needs.
  • Driven by aging baby boomers, studies predict that by 2029, the federal government will spend half its budget on those aged 65 and older.
  • 55M people across the world have dementia, costing the world $1.3T a year, and experts project a 40% spike in patients by 2030.

As we live longer, a growing market demands a solution to costly age-related health problems.

Disrupting Death

Hoping to cash in (and live long enough to spend it), longevity scientists and entrepreneurs break into two groups.

  • Healthspanners want to extend the amount of time we spend living as healthy individuals—that is, not in a nursing home or on a hospital bed—followed by “compressed morbidity,” or a quick and painless death.
  • Immortalists take it a step further. They believe that we can find the secret to eternal life.

What both camps do agree on: Aging is not a natural byproduct of time but rather a medical condition that can be treated — or even cured.

Further, they believe that conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular disease are symptoms of an underlying problem: growing older.

In an article written for a16z, Vijay Pande and Kristen Fortney assert that:

“Even with our best efforts, best technologies, and best science for each of these major diseases, curing age related diseases one at a time is ultimately low impact. Let’s say we completely cured cancer; that would add a paltry 4 years to average lifespan, because another major killer like stroke would be just around the corner.”

Longevity scientists believe that targeted treatments are red herrings, of sorts — finding cures to every individual disease demands valuable resources while failing to address the root cause.

Currently, aging receives only 6% of government health research funding, yet studies show that increasing life expectancy by just one year would add a staggering $38T to the US economy.

S. Jay Olshansky, a professor studying aging at the University of Chicago, predicts that the first company to successfully slow, stop, or reverse aging will “dwarf any other current public health intervention to date in terms of impact.”

Road to Neverland

After decades of research, we now understand aging more than ever and, for the first time, are reaching a consensus on the factors that contribute to it.

As scientists pin down various biological mechanisms and experts predict more than $127B up for grabs, entrepreneurs and investors are rolling up their sleeves.

  • David Sinclair and Peter Attia, both giants in the aging space, will be co-chairing a $200M biotech SPAC, Frontier Acquisition Corp., to acquire promising longevity startups.
  • SENS Research Foundation recently received the largest cryptocurrency donation in history ($27M) to support R&D for aging therapies.
  • Google-backed Calico Labs renewed its $1B partnership with AbbVie to continue R&D efforts into the underlying biology of aging.
  • Altos Labs, a new anti-aging research company, just launched with backing from the world’s wealthiest, including Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

Looking ahead, emerging longevity tech falls into several buckets.

How old are you, for your age? A growing class of startups help you monitor your biological age (the state of cells) as opposed to chronological age (how old you are). Last year, BioAge secured $90M to measure and treat factors of aging, while EDIFICE Health, an OTC test kit to monitor “inflammatory age,” recently raised $12M.

Gene clean. Anti-aging gene therapy involves altering an organism’s DNA to reverse aging. Harvard startup Rejuvenate Bio secured over $10M in April to tackle age-related conditions with a single injection — and it’s experimenting on age reversal with dogs.

Out for blood. A form of cell therapy, young blood plasma transfusions have become an increasingly popular yet controversial trend in Silicon Valley after a 2014 study found that blood from young mice reversed aging in old mice.

  • Spanish firm Grifols closed a $146M deal last year to buy blood transfusion startup Alkahest, valuing the company at nearly $300M.
  • Elevian, founded by a team of Harvard scientists, raised $15M in equity funding last November to develop regenerative treatment based in blood plasma transferals.

Killing zombie cells. Senescent “zombie” cells, those which are aging or deteriorating, are linked to several age-related diseases like cancer. A leader in the space, Jeff Bezos-backed UNITY Biotechnology researches the anti-aging effects of banishing such cells and recently announced $80M in debt financing. Meanwhile, Seattle-based Oisín Biotechnologies raised $5M earlier in May.

One new liver, please. Another group of longevity startups focus on cell and organ regeneration. Leading the charge, tissue engineering company Humacyte went public via SPAC at a $1.1B market cap, while Vita Therapeutics secured $32M in June to rebuild muscle cells and develop technologies that could slow or reverse the effects of aging.

Looking Ahead

Despite massive interest and ample funding, the longevity industry faces an uphill climb. Studies are complicated and expensive, with some costing up to $65M and taking decades to conduct.

Further, most breakthrough longevity studies have only been performed on mice. Realistically, no company is anywhere close to releasing an anti-aging solution for humans.

This past month, in another setback for the longevity community, Aubrey de Grey, anti-aging guru and CEO of the SENS Research Foundation, was fired after allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior.

Beyond these challenges, some wonder whether aging is a part of life we simply shouldn’t seek to optimize.

“Eternity does not come cheap,” writes Ketan Desai, MD, imagining the potential tedium of immortality and strain on environmental resources.

Still others point to a deeper spiritual reason. Mortality is what makes our time on Earth precious — would a life without an end render it meaningless?


📲 Studio Fitness Goes Digital

When the pandemic hit and gyms shuttered, Barry’s pivoted online, hosting Instagram Live and Zoom workouts. Behind the scenes, the company was busy developing its digital strategy.

On the Fitt Insider podcast: Barry’s CEO Joey Gonzalez joined us to talk Barry’s X, the company’s new digital platform, and his plan for creating an omnichannel offering — including partnering with connected fitness brands.

We also cover: Joey’s experience with the company, from customer and instructor to chief executive responsible for global expansion. And we discuss the importance of building a values-driven company culture.

Listen to today’s episode here

🌿 Sustainable Activewear

Activewear brands are betting big on sustainability.

  • lululemon invested in sustainable materials maker Genomatica ahead of launching plant-based activewear.
  • Nike is working with biotech company Newlight Technologies to design a carbon-negative, biodegradable alternative to plastic and leather.
  • The North Face partnered with sustainable textile manufacturer Spinnova to develop better-for-the-planet outdoor apparel.
  • adidas and Allbirds collabed this year to create a sneaker with the lowest carbon footprint ever.
Speaking of Allbirds, the eco-leaning footwear brand just filed for IPO at a potential value of over $2B.

How we got here: In early August, the UN climate change report sounded a “code red for humanity.” This past year alone, California broke records in acreage burned from wildfires, and July 2021 was Earth’s hottest recorded month in human history.

For consumer-facing corporations, sustainability is now table stakes. Brands are well-acquainted with activist consumers who increasingly believe in caring for our communities and for our planet.

  • Products marketed as sustainable counted for 50% of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018.
  • Purchase motivation grows 3x when overall benefits are combined with sustainability benefits.

Unfortunately, activewear, with its reliance on petroleum-based materials, is notoriously bad for the environment, resulting in microscopic waste and contaminants. As the US sustainability market tops $150B, activewear brands are hoping to shed that image and double down on greener products.

But… most brands still have a ways to go and are facing increasing scrutiny for pushing unproven or boastful sustainability initiatives as a marketing ploy — a practice called greenwashing.

  • lululemon’s new bio-based nylon might be a step forward, but it still won’t be biodegradable.
  • Despite grand ambitions, Allbirds was recently sued for exaggerating its sustainability claims.

Next up, WolvenGirlfriend Collective, and PANGAIA hope to fill the greenwashing gap.

Takeaway: Fighting climate change is more urgent than ever, and as buyers vote with their wallets, activewear brands are innovating to keep up. These days, greenwashing simply won’t cut it anymore — brands that want to succeed will need to back up their marketing with tangible impact.

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🥗 Locally Sourced, Publicly Traded

The last time we covered sweetgreen, they were expanding into the suburbs. This time, they’re eyeing the public markets.

In 2019, the salad-slinging unicorn pulled in over $300M at an average of $3M+ per store. This summer, as revenue nears pre-pandemic levels, the $1.8B company filed for IPO and has since placed several tech-centric strategic bets.

Salad bots. Machines replacing restaurant workers may feel far off, but sweetgreen’s acquisition of kitchen automation startup Spyce could move the industry toward a robo-workforce.

At worst, it turns out to be an expensive boondoggle. At best, it expands fast-casual restaurant profit margins while mitigating human worker error and slashing customer wait times.

Either way, by positioning the salad chain as a high-growth tech company, the acquisition could be an attempt to woo would-be investors ahead of their IPO:

  • Restaurants typically trade at 25x trailing 12-months price-to-earnings (TTM P/E) ratio.
  • Tech-embracing restaurant chains like Starbucks (41x) and Chipotle (95x) trade at significantly higher TTM P/E ratios.

The real question: How quickly can sweetgreen test and successfully implement automation at scale?

Tech team. Dubbed the “Starbucks of salads,” it’s only fitting that sweetgreen recently hired Wouleta Ayele, Starbucks’ former SVP of technology services, as its new CTO.

With experience setting and executing global technology strategy across 70+ markets, Ayele’s ability to scale best-in-class technology operations will serve as a key leverage point for long-term growth. Last year, 77% of sweetgreen’s sales came from digital orders.

Charting new channels. As more and more companies return to the office, sweetgreen’s fast-growing corporate delivery channel, Outpost, will likely make a comeback. A step further, the founders see the potential for delivery to eventually comprise 50% of all sales, facilitated by their vertically integrated food system.

Next up, the founders are pursuing an IPO and hope to one day create a hyper-personalized Spotify-esque dining experience in their moonshot journey to becoming the McDonald’s of this generation.

Looking ahead: As the founders wax poetic about bettering the world through salad, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. One thing is for certain: $15 salads are a bigger business than anyone thought… But, will the company’s returns prove to be as healthy and sustainable as their salads are? That’ll depend on its ability to execute its lofty ideas at scale.

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📰 News & Notes

💰 Money Moves

  • On the heels of $200M in funding, WHOOP acquired PUSH, a wearable focused on strength training and velocity-based performance data.
  • Nautilus is acquiring VAY, a motion technology company providing personalized feedback on repetitions and exercise form.
  • Clubessential Holdings, a fitness/recreation membership-management software company, secured a “significant” growth investment from Silver Lake.
  • Synthesis Institute, provider of wellness retreats and psychedelic practitioner training, closed a $7.25M Series A funding round.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Business of Psychedelics
  • Regimen, a startup offering digital therapy for erectile dysfunction, secured $2.25M in seed funding led by Ringier Digital Ventures.
    More from Fitt Insider: What’s Next in Men’s Wellness 
  • Elvie, makers of a breast pump and smart pelvic floor exerciser, raised an additional $17.5M in funding, extending the company’s Series C to $97M.
    More from Fitt Insider: Femtech 2.0 
  • Oviva, a digital health company providing diet and lifestyle coaching, raised $80M in Series C funding co-led by Sofina and Temasek.
  • Solo Stove, makers of fire pits and camp stoves, acquired Chubbies ShortsOru Kayak, and ISLE under a new Solo Brands banner.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Outdoor Economy
  • Functional drinks startup, The Naked Collective, secured more than £5.3M ($7.3M) in funding.

 

Today’s newsletter was brought to you by Anthony and Joe Vennare, Melody Song, Wesley Yen, and Ryan Deer.