Laura Deming is not your typical venture capitalist. Then again, she isn’t typical in many ways.
For starters, the 23-year-old, New Zealand native was home schooled, developing along the way a love of math and physics and, perhaps most interestingly, the biology of aging. In fact, she became so preoccupied with the latter that at age 11, Deming wrote to Cynthia Kenyon, a renowned molecular biologist who specializes in the genetics of aging, asking if she could visit Kenyon’s San Francisco lab during a family trip to the Bay Area. Kenyon said yes. When, soon after the visit, Deming asked if she could work in the lab, Kenyon said yes again.
Deming’s family moved to the U.S. to make it possible, and it’s highly doubtful they regret the decision. Indeed, by age 14, Deming was a student at MIT, and two years after that — at the tender age of 16 — she was a college drop-out, having been accepted into Peter Thiel’s two-year-old Thiel Fellowship program, which gives $100,000 to young people “who want to build new things.”
Often, those “new things” evolve along the way. Not for Deming, who pitched the idea of a venture fund that would support aging-related startups, and has since turned that early concept into Longevity Fund, an early-stage venture outfit that just closed its second fund with $22 million.
Earlier today we caught up with Deming to learn more about her path — and which technologies she’s betting on to extend the human lifespan.
TC: It’s incredible that this all started with an email to a UCSF professor.
LD: [Cynthia Kenyon] is the most amazing person I’ll ever meet.
TC: What did you do in her lab, exactly?
LD: We were working with tiny, see-through worms. You put them on a plate of jelly and you see what happens if you change their genetic material. Do they live longer or die faster? If you starve them, they live longer. If you starve worms and also turn off certain genes, could you get them to live even longer? I was naïve, but I really wanted to make the longest-living worms ever. [Laughs.]
TC: What did you study at MIT?
LD: I majored in physics actually, but I continued to work in a couple of labs, including [one overseen by] Lenny Guarente [a biologist known for his research on lifespan extension]. It was a lot of fun. I thought I’d be a scientist, but a grad student familiar with the Thiel fellowship told me I should apply and I did. It’s funny, one of the directors of the [Thiel] program told me recently that he thought I’d fail, even though he was very supportive. After we closed the first fund, he was like, “I never thought that would work out.”
LD: In part because not long ago, if you talked with most VCs about aging, they didn’t think there was anything there. I think aging is such a young science, they hadn’t heard about it. Meanwhile, I care a lot about it, and though we don’t know if it’ll work or not, it’s not unlike [biotech companies trying to tackle] cancer in that way, and if you believe in cancer companies, you should also care about aging companies.
TC: How much did you raise for that first fund?
LD: A grand total of $4 million, and I was very proud of this. To be honest, I’d assumed $100,000 was enough to build a fund until I arrived in San Francisco and realized it was really enough to live on for two years. When I started fundraising, I was 17 — too young to legally sign contracts. I’d never managed money before. But I could talk to people about the science and got them on board with that. In the end, we had great anchor investors come together, and we invested in five companies that kind of proved out the strategy.
TC: Were one of those anchor investors Peter Thiel?
LD: We don’t really talk about our LPs.
TC: You say “we,” though you’re the sole general partner of Longevity. Is that correct?
LD: Yes, but I have a lot of back-office support. The way Longevity is structured, I’m also able to pull in the best people who have expertise from different domains, so it’s not one person who looks at all the deals.
TC: And these advisors get a stake in the company?
LD: Sometimes. Others — especially grad students — like to be paid up front. We’ll find the best incentive for that individual and work with that.
LD: It did. All of the companies in that portfolio have [at least] raised Series A rounds of $30 million or more to get to that proof of concept.
TC: Given the amounts involved, is the plan to form special purpose vehicles, or SPVs, around your break-out winners?
LD: We like to help LPs follow on, so we look to do that in whatever way makes sense for both parties. With Unity, we put in money as early as possible because Ned Davis, who runs the company, is amazing and we thought its aging thesis would succeed.
TC: How many companies do you expect to fund with your newly closed fund?
LD: Eight to 10 companies.
TC: Do you think your work will be harder, given that investors seem to be paying much more attention to aging suddenly?
LD: No. With our first fund, we spent up to six months with each deal, tracking the company before it was even raising. It’s something LPs really value from us; they know when they invest in something that they don’t need to re-do the diligence, that we’ve already looked at a bunch of stuff and we know this is the best possible investment in [a particular vertical].
Earlier, our biggest challenge was getting other investors on board and convincing them that aging has become a place to play. Now that’s a non-issue, which is great. Our job is to help the companies get other investors on board, so it’s wonderful to see excitement in the space begin to build.
TC: You look at a lot of technologies. I have to ask: do you find these new blood transfusion startups as interesting as the writers of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”?
LD: [Laughs.] While scientifically interesting, I think they get a little over-discussed in the press because of that vampirism. It’s not as sexy to talk about new genetic regulatory elements that control the aging process. That’s not going to get as many clicks as a story about drinking the blood of your five-year-old.