AI, Startups, Venture

British billionaire Jim Mellon and high-profile partners roll the dice on an anti-aging upstart

When British billionaire Jim Mellon wants to map out an investment strategy, he likes to write a book first. Out of that process came his most recent work — Juvenescence: Investing in the Age of Longevity. Now he and some close associates with some of the best connections in biotech are using the book as inspiration to launch a new company — also named Juvenescence — with plans to make a big splash in anti-aging research.

Jim Mellon

And they’re planting the first seeds now with a new joint venture that will start to lay the foundation for the pipeline with artificial intelligence technology.

“We are at an inflection point for the treatment of aging,” says Greg Bailey, who likes to highlight some of the new cellular pathways that are pointing to new therapies that can counter the effects of aging.

“I think this is going to be the biggest deal I’ve ever done,” Bailey tells me in a phone interview, as his plane was preparing for a takeoff.  “It will need repetitive financing.  Five to $600 million was raised for Medivation. As we hit inflection points, we will need to raise a dramatic amount of money.”

Gregory Bailey

Bailey, the CEO of Juvenescence, was one of the early backers of Medivation, where he was a board director for 7 years — before Pfizer stepped in to buy the biotech for $14 billion. More recently, he helped position Biohaven for an IPO, assembling a pipeline that includes a late-stage drug in-licensed from Bristol-Myers Squibb before raising $190 million a few months ago in their maiden offering. The chairman at Biohaven is his longtime colleague Declan Doogan, a former top Pfizer research exec who is coming in as a principal to the new venture alongside Mellon and Bailey.

The primary game plan at Juvenescence, explains Bailey, is to come up with various operations engaged in developing new anti-aging drugs. Juvenescence AI is a joint venture they’ve just set up with Alex Zhavoronkov, who runs Insilico Medicine, based in Baltimore. Mellon met Zhavoronkov while he was researching his book, says Bailey, and believes that the tech the scientist developed can illuminate new programs with a better chance of success.

“They are going to take up to 5 molecules from us every year for development,” says Zhavoronkov, an enthusiastic advocate of AI in drug research who’s also been working on some alliances with Big Pharma players. The group has invested about $7 million in the technology so far, he says, getting the JV set up. More will follow.

Alex Zhavoronkov

“We can generate molecules with specific molecular properties,” adds Zhavoronkov, who also has a special focus on anti-aging research.

“The massive liberation of new data needs to transform into knowledge,” says Doogan. “AI is the buzz word; can we take incremental steps, in an iterative learning process, capture all knowledge?”

Juvenescence Bio will be charged with building the pipeline, says Bailey, in part with the molecules that will be identified through the AI venture. And Doogan will play a lead role in organizing the team now, much as he was credited with at Biohaven.

Aside from the cellular pathways that have attracted their attention, the biotech will look to effect change in the mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouse, as well as clean up senescent cells that accumulate as the body grows older. And Bailey expects he’ll be working some Biohaven-like deals to develop an advanced pipeline at a rapid pace.

The principals chipped in the seed millions for the company and invested in the JV with Zhavoronkov. Bailey says you can expect to see $20 million to $50 million more from a friends-and-family raise before the end of the year. And it’s expected to grow from there.

Declan Doogan

Doogan plans to recruit various team leaders, individuals who will be in charge of specific projects with 10 or fewer people on the crew. Like any biotech, he notes, they plan to rely on a semi-virtual structure, with a major amount of outsourcing in place of staff.

The biotech won’t just be a biotech, says Doogan. It will cover “multiple domains: diagnostics, consumer, conventional drug development — broad ideas to engage the consumer.”

The key, he says, is focusing on not just a longer life, but a better one.

“Not just longer, but better longer,” is the way Doogan puts it. “Healthy aging is the objective here.”

That leaves a lot of room.

“There are 52 ways to drop blood pressure, but we’ve done nothing for osteoarthritis,” says Doogan by way of example.

“We have to be really clever,” says Bailey. Drugs like Novartis’ mTOR inhibitor everolimus, which controls cell growth and proliferation, can be a model. Osteoarthritis, a disease associated with aging, can be the kind of disease focus that can drive early work.

It’s early days yet for anti-aging drug research. A few stalwarts like Bob Nelsen at Arch have backed the first few startups in the field. But Mellon and his colleagues say now’s the time.

The longevity industry, Mellon said recently, is destined to grow “into the world’s largest industry.”

And he wants in.

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