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Biotechnology and health

I just met the founders of a would-be longevity state

Longevity enthusiasts gathered at an exclusive event in Montenegro. I tagged along.

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What if I told you there’s a group of people who think death is morally bad—that we have a moral duty to find ways to slow or reverse aging? Who seek to create a new state with its own laws that expedite the development of longevity drugs, partly by encouraging biohacking and self-experimentation?

A community of such individuals have been living together in a resort in Montenegro for the past seven weeks. They’ve been sharing ideas, collaborating on projects, running hackathons, and having plenty of parties. They call their gathering Zuzalu. Last week, I went to see it for myself.

My journey to Zuzalu wasn’t straightforward. My 3 a.m. train to the airport was canceled, and my flight was delayed. The weather was too bad to land the plane in Montenegro, so we were diverted to neighboring Croatia. It took a taxi, a boat, and a golf buggy to get to my apartment in this “pop-up city community” in a resort on the shore of the Adriatic Sea.

Zuzalu is the brainchild of Vitalik Buterin, the creator of the cryptocurrency Ethereum. But the co-organizers of the event stress that it’s a collaborative endeavor. One of the organizers, Janine Leger, who works at the blockchain platform Gitcoin, says the team wants Zuzalu to be a decentralized community, with little to no hierarchy.

Only people who aren’t status-oriented were invited, Leger told me. People who didn’t fit in, or who bothered attendees, were sent packing. “There was a very high bar to entry and a low bar to exit,” she said. As we talked, Leger made it clear she was not particularly happy about my presence. When I asked her what the highlight of the event was for her, she told me it was the lack of media coverage. I got the impression that Zuzalu, for all the purported lack of status-seeking, is a very exclusive event.

The resort itself is a luxury development that was built from scratch around a decade ago. What was only recently a wild coastline now comprises around a billion euros’ worth of apartments and hotels arranged over around 2.7 million square miles of land, mostly steep hills.

Everything was incredibly clean and felt very upmarket. I didn’t see a single piece of litter or even any insects during my stay. The resort felt very much designed for the rich. Zuzalu attendees can get around using free golf buggies, driven by resort employees who can be summoned via WhatsApp.

I was just a visitor to Zuzalu for a few days. The residents will stay for two months. Each week of the event has a different theme, ranging from synthetic biology to public goods. I arrived in time for the longevity biotech conference.

There’s no agreed dress code at Zuzalu. Some people were walking around in suits, others in shorts and flip-flops. But there were a lot of people wearing clothes with logos, company names, and slogans emblazoned on them. Everywhere I went, I saw “Longevity” stickers that had been slapped on hats, bags, tops, and laptops. I saw people wearing T-shirts that read “Molecule,” “Say forever,” and “I sequenced and analyzed my genome. What about you?”

The conference itself featured talks on the promise of psychedelics, phages, lab-grown sex cells, and the partial reprogramming of cells to a younger state. There was a real mix of people at the event, which attracted people from the crypto and Web3 communities as well as those dedicated to healthy longevity. In one session, the speakers asked the audience how they would describe themselves. A third said they were entrepreneurs, and 19% said they were investors. When people were asked where they were from, Russia was the most popular answer. 

Audience members were also asked about their ultimate goals. Answers ranged from the earnest to the creepy; they included “saving my mom and dad” and “keeping women youthful and pretty.” One person’s goal was to “build a unicorn,” and of course there was at least one who wanted to live forever.

A couple of sessions were dedicated to discussing what a new, longevity-focused state might look like. Some participants want to create a sovereign state where like-minded individuals would be free to self-experiment with unproven treatments that they believe might help them live longer, healthier lives. Some want to remove regulatory restrictions that they believe hold back the development of longevity treatments and devices. The drug approval process we have at the moment is too slow, they argue.

The organizers of Zuzalu told me the event is an experiment, and they plan to run similar events in the future. One of the attendees said it’s like a religion. Several others told me it has been life-changing for them.

For me, Zuzalu provided a fascinating glimpse into what feels like another world. Keep an eye out for a longer piece on the event in the coming days.

Read more from Tech Review's archive

This isn’t the first time a group has sought to set up a new state with the goal of fast-tracking technological progress. Laurie Clarke reported on how a biohacking company took advantage of lax regulations in a “cryptocity” in Honduras to test controversial gene therapies.

Last year, I went to Switzerland to meet the people investing millions into the pursuit of a longer life. Here’s my on-the-ground report. (And there are more details about the conference in this follow-up piece.)

Some researchers are focusing on their pets first. Meet the scientists working to extend the life span of dogs—and eventually humans.

Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, recently invested $180 million in a company seeking a way to add 10 years to humans’ life spans, as my colleague Antonio Regalado reported.

Antonio has also written about the kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s plans to pump a billion dollars a year, via its non-profit Hevolution, into research that focuses on ways to increase the number of healthy years lived.

From around the web

Potentially dangerous heavy metals are getting into baby food. Scientists are working on new technologies to keep them out. (Undark)

Drug shortages in the US are reaching record levels. The scarcity of cancer drugs makes this a public health emergency, according to a president-elect of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology. (New York Times)

Politicians in the UK are debating whether to review access to psilocybin “in order to facilitate the development of new mental health treatments.” (UK Parliament)

Used disposable diapers could be recycled as a building material. The waste could replace up to 8% of the sand in concrete and mortar used to build a single-story house. (Scientific Reports)

Elizabeth Holmes has been ordered to report to prison before the end of May. Holmes, who founded the biotech company Theranos, was found guilty last year of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud against investors. (The Washington Post)

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