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Biotechnology and health

Sam Altman invested $180 million into a company trying to delay death

Can anti-aging breakthroughs add 10 healthy years to the human life span? The CEO of OpenAI is paying to find out.

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Stephanie Arnett/MITTR

When a startup called Retro Biosciences eased out of stealth mode in mid-2022, it announced it had secured $180 million to bankroll an audacious mission: to add 10 years to the average human life span. It had set up its headquarters in a raw warehouse space near San Francisco just the year before, bolting shipping containers to the concrete floor to quickly make lab space for the scientists who had been enticed to join the company.

Retro said that it would “prize speed” and “tighten feedback loops” as part of an “aggressive mission” to stall aging, or even reverse it. But it was vague about where its money had come from. At the time, it was a “mysterious startup,” according to press reports, “whose investors remain anonymous.”

Now MIT Technology Review can reveal that the entire sum was put up by Sam Altman, the 37-year-old startup guru and investor who is CEO of OpenAI. 

Altman spends nearly all his time at OpenAI, an artificial-intelligence company whose chatbots and electronic art programs have been convulsing the tech sphere with their human-like capabilities. 

But Altman’s money is a different matter. He says he’s emptied his bank account to fund two other very different but equally ambitious goals: limitless energy and extended life span.

One of those bets is on the fusion power startup Helion Energy, into which he’s poured more than $375 million, he told CNBC in 2021. The other is Retro, to which Altman cut checks totaling $180 million the same year. 

“It’s a lot. I basically just took all my liquid net worth and put it into these two companies,” Altman says.

Altman’s investment in Retro hasn’t been previously reported. It is among the largest ever by an individual into a startup pursuing human longevity.

Altman has long been a prominent figure in the Silicon Valley scene, where he previously ran the startup incubator Y Combinator in San Francisco. But his profile has gone global with OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT, software that’s able to write poems and answer questions.

The AI breakthrough, according to Fortune, has turned the seven-year-old company into “an unlikely member of the club of tech superpowers.” Microsoft committed to investing $10 billion, and Altman, with 1.5 million Twitter followers, is consolidating a reputation as a heavy hitter whose creations seem certain to alter society in profound ways.  

Altman does not appear on the Forbes billionaires list, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t extremely wealthy. His wide-ranging investments have included early stakes in companies like Stripe and Airbnb. 

 “I have been an early-stage tech investor in the greatest bull market in history,” he says. 

Hard tech

Now, he is putting his capital to work at a level he calls an “order of magnitude” greater than he could during his Y Combinator days. And he has been concentrating those bets into a few areas of technology he thinks will have the biggest positive impact on human affairs: AI, energy, and anti-aging biotech. 

Helion, based in Everett, Washington, aspires to tame atom smashing to create a “limitless source of clean energy.” Retro’s aim is to prolong human life by discovering how to rejuvenate our bodies, according to its CEO and cofounder, the entrepreneur Joe Betts-LaCroix.

All these companies, including OpenAI, are what Altman calls “hard” startups—those requiring large investments in order to make scientific advances and master difficult technology. It’s a shift for Altman, from backing fast-growth apps and their founders during the Web 2.0 boom to backing scientists pursuing long-term research.  

Hard science companies are more expensive to fund, but Altman thinks their larger goals are more likely to attract talented engineers. He recently tweeted a quote from the Victorian-era architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” 

While fusion and life extension could be implausible projects (some researchers say they are pipe dreams), it’s also true that few people expected to see an AI passing a medical school exam in 2023, as OpenAI’s question-answering software ChatGPT did this year. In fact, Altman says, hard startups may stand a better chance of success than easy ones. That’s because there may be a thousand startups hawking photo-sharing apps, but there are only a few capable of building experimental fusion reactors. 

Scaling up

Altman says he has been placing bets in areas where underlying trends make him think technologies that look impossible today might actually work relatively soon. That is what happened at OpenAI, founded in 2015. The company took a type of machine-learning program called a transformer and steadily scaled it up, spending more than a billion dollars to buy computer time as it built its products. 

The resulting programs can, in just seconds, create pictures and complex text passages that pass for the work of humans. “We have an algorithm that can learn, and it seems to keep scaling with more compute,” Altman recently told Rescale.

With fusion power, the trend Altman saw was toward bigger and stronger magnets. Magnets are needed to hold in place the 100-million-degree vortex of hot plasma at the core of a reactor. Altman says he initially invested around $10 million in Helion but then ramped up his bet as he “became super confident it is going to work.” 

Even though fusion isn’t yet solved (the reactors still use more energy than they make), he has been urging Helion to lay plans for how it might build several reactors a day, something necessary if fusion power is to take over from coal and gas. 

“The central learning of my career has been that. Like, scale it up and see what happens,” says Altman.

Young blood

About eight years ago, Altman became interested in so-called “young blood” research. These were studies in which scientists sewed young and old mice together so that they shared one blood system. The surprise: the old mice seemed to be partly rejuvenated.

A grisly experiment, but in a way, remarkably simple. Altman was head of Y Combinator at the time, and he tasked his staff with looking into the progress being made by anti-aging scientists.

“It felt like, all right, this was a result I didn’t expect and another one I didn’t expect,” he says. “So there’s something going on where … maybe there is a secret here that is going to be easier to find than we think.” 

In 2018, Y Combinator launched a special course for biotech companies, inviting those with “radical anti-aging schemes” to apply, but before long, Altman moved away from Y Combinator to focus on his growing role at OpenAI. 

Then, in 2020, researchers in California showed they could achieve an effect similar to young blood by replacing the plasma of old mice with salt water and albumin. That suggested the real problem lay in the old blood. Simply by diluting it (and the toxins in it), medicine might get one step closer to a cure for aging.

These were studies in which scientists sewed young and old mice together so that they shared one blood system. The surprise: the old mice seemed to be partly rejuvenated.

“Sam called me up and said ‘Holy moly’—I’m paraphrasing, that’s not exactly what he said—‘Did you see this plasma intervention paper?’” recalls Betts-LaCroix, who had once been the part-time biotech partner at Y Combinator and still leads a meetup for longevity enthusiasts.

Betts-LaCroix agreed that it was cool and some company should pursue it. “How about I fund you to do it?” Altman said. 

But Betts-LaCroix was already working on a different idea. He had just wrapped up an earlier venture, a company called Vium, which had tried to “digitize” mouse colonies, adding cameras and AI to monitor experiments. Vium had raised more than $50 million but hadn’t been successful. That year, it was folded into another biotech company, which paid $2.6 million for its assets.

Betts-LaCroix’s new plan was to start a company to pursue cellular reprogramming—another hot area, involving techniques to make cells younger through genetic engineering. He’d already teamed up with a Chinese researcher, Sheng Ding, who’d developed new ways to reprogram cells. Betts-LaCroix also thought processes that cells use to dispose of toxins (known as autophagy) could be an important avenue to explore. 

Altman’s response: “Why don’t you do all those things?”

“I’ll do it. I’ll build a multi-program company around aging biology, and that is the big play,” Betts-LaCroix recalls saying. “He was like, ‘Great—let’s go for it.’”

The new company would need a lot of money—enough to keep it afloat at least seven or eight years while it carried out research, ran into setbacks, and overcame them. It would also need to get things done quickly. Spending at many biotech startups is decided on by a board of directors, but at Retro, Betts-LaCroix has all the decision-making power.  “We have no bureaucracy,’ he says. “I am the bureaucracy.” 

For instance, instead of waiting for scarce lab space to become available, Betts-LaCroix filled a warehouse with those 40 prefab shipping containers outfitted as laboratories. That meant it could quickly carry out its first experiments, including repeating some of the plasma work in mice. Betts-LaCroix presented some initial results at a meeting last year, saying that mice given plasma replacement did seem to be stronger after the treatment.

Mysterious startup

Retro’s staff file memos each week about what went well in the lab and what went poorly. Often, says Betts-LaCroix, he’ll call on the weekend to pass along highlights to Altman, who sometimes makes suggestions. 

Until now, though, Altman’s involvement in the company has been kept confidential. That was a decision made by Betts-LaCroix, who wanted to let Retro carve its own path. Altman agreed, since he tries “to be super careful about not overshadowing the CEOs I work with.” 

When Betts-LaCroix brought the company out of stealth in mid-2022, via a series of tweets, he didn’t publicly reveal the checks Altman had written the year before, instead saying he was “fortunate to have initial funding in the amount of $180 million” that would “secure” the company’s operations for the rest of the decade as it reached its “first proofs of concept” for life extension.

Retro Bio employees sitting on the top of the shipping containers that make up their lab space
Joe Betts-Lacroix, CEO of Retro Biosciences, poses with staffers on top of shipping containers the company uses as lab space.
RETRO BIO

That was also because Altman’s name could prove a distraction, say people familiar with the company’s thinking. Sure, he had a big name, but it was for the wrong reasons. Although Altman’s stature in the startup world is unmatched, his reputation is almost nonexistent in biology labs and pharmaceutical circles, settings in which a person’s scientific record is paramount. 

“I have never heard the name Sam Altman,” says Irina Conboy, the researcher at UC Berkeley whose work in plasma had so wowed him. She does know Betts-LaCroix from the longevity scene but says that during a lunch meeting he arranged to discuss the business, she let him know she was focused on scientific discoveries. 

“A hundred million is a number, not a breakthrough,” says Conboy.

Bad press

Every technology also has risks. In the case of AI, it is chatbots that spew lies and misinformation. For age reversal, if it ever works, one often cited risk is public resentment, especially if it’s going to be made available to rich people like Altman first. If Altman’s backing were made prominent, the thinking went, Retro could be pigeonholed as a billionaire’s misguided vanity project. 

There was reason to worry. In 2016, after Peter Thiel, one of Altman’s mentors, expressed interest in possibly getting age-defeating blood transfusions, he was mocked in the media as a vampire on the prowl for young victims. A year later, the HBO parody show Silicon Valley drove the stake in with an episode called “Blood Boy.” In it, a fictional tech CEO takes a meeting while his veins are connected to those of a handsome young man introduced as his “transfusion associate.”

“We don’t really want … these old billionaires having to pay the plasma donors to come give them donations,” Betts-LaCroix told an audience in Europe last summer. He said the company instead hopes to find more “plausible” interventions, like drugs that mimic the effects of blood replacement and could be used by millions of people. 

“We don’t want to discriminate against billionaires. I’m just saying we don’t want therapies that are super expensive and awkward and difficult to implement,” he added.

For his part, Altman says his personal anti-aging regime consists of “trying to eat healthy, exercise, sleep enough” and taking metformin, a diabetes drug that has also become popular in Silicon Valley circles on the theory that it might be able to keep people healthier for longer. “I hope to use a Retro therapy someday!” Altman says. 

OpenAI for longevity

One reason anti-aging research can seem like a promising area for investment is that it has not drawn much funding in the past, at least relative to the size of the problem. Nearly a fifth of the US GDP—$4.3 trillion, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services—is spent on health care, and much of that is to treat the elderly. A widespread view among longevity researchers is that if aging could be delayed with a drug, it could help postpone a host of serious diseases, including cancer and heart disease. 

To make the widest impact, Betts-LaCroix says, he is looking for interventions that can be scaled up and reach “millions or billions” of people. 

“We don’t want to discriminate against billionaires. I’m just saying we don’t want therapies that are super expensive and awkward and difficult to implement.”

Joe Betts-LaCroix

By the time Retro came out of stealth, though, the assault on old age was going through a period of intense popularity. The Saudi government said it would give out $1 billion in grants each year and an organization called Altos Labs had formed with what it would claim was $3 billion in funding. It too had famous investors, like Yuri Milner and, according to some sources, Jeff Bezos. 

In comparison to these ventures, Altman’s bet now looks relatively small, even making Retro seem like an underdog. One of its projects is to test rejuvenation techniques on T cells, part of the immune system that play an important role in fighting infection and staving off cancer. These cells are especially useful because they can be removed, rejuvenated in the lab, and then returned to a patient. But other startups have similar goals, including Altos and NewLimit, a biotech company started by the cryptocurrency billionaire Brian Armstrong last year. Competition for research talent is especially stiff. Altos sucked up half the leading scientists in reprogramming when it convinced two dozen university professors to leave their jobs, offering million-dollar salaries, among other benefits.

But Betts-LaCroix has managed to lure some top minds as well. Last year, for instance, he jumped on a plane to Switzerland to woo Alejandro Ocampo, a researcher at the University of Lausanne whose initial efforts to rejuvenate mice in 2016 helped spark the current frenzy of longevity investment. 

“I was happy to see Joe would fly all the way to see me in person,” says Ocampo, who appreciated being courted and later agreed to be a paid consultant to the company.

He also says Betts-LaCroix was open to his opinion that age reversal in humans isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Some of Ocampo’s recent experiments have explored why reprogramming, the method he studies, even ends up killing some mice instead of making them live longer. “There are optimists who think we’ll be immortal in 10 years, and there are pessimists who say we will never extend human life,” says Ocampo. “I am a realist, and my personal view is that everyone is doing the easy, fast experiment, and if we do that I don’t think we are going to get very far. It’s not going to be a simple path.”

Ocampo says Betts-LaCroix convinced him that Retro would be willing to use its money to explore those fundamental questions. “They wanted to advance the science, not only go after the low-hanging fruit,” he says. “Other companies need to find an immediate application, but in their case they can spend time exploring the basic science as well.”

One thing Betts-LaCroix and Ocampo didn’t talk about was where Retro’s money had come from. Until asked by MIT Technology Review, Ocampo says, he had no idea Altman was funding the startup. 

In an interview, Altman didn’t express concern over the competition from other companies. He thinks most biotech companies are conditioned to move too slowly and are generally “badly run.”  What’s needed, he thinks, is an “OpenAI-type effort” in longevity. 

“The main thing for Retro is to be a really good bio startup, because that is a rare thing,” says Altman. “It’s combining great science and the resources of a big company with the spirit of a startup that gets things done. And that is the project for now.“

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