Michael Antonov caught “the longevity bug” after helping to found Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headgear company, and selling it to Facebook for $2.3bn. He went back to college and taught himself biochemistry, and now he invests in startups which are developing the tools to allow us to understand the fabulously complex mechanics of our bodies.
What is it with Russians? If you throw a ball into the audience during a conference on aging there is a pretty good chance it will be caught by a Russian, or someone of Russian extraction. Michael Antonov attributes this partly to Russia’s strong tradition of scientific and technical education, and partly to the emigration of many of Russia’s most educated and able people. When these emigrants become immigrants they bring great skills and determination to their adopted homelands.
Antonov moved to the USA from Russia with his parents when he was 14, two years after Perestroika made such journeys possible. At school and university, he loved programming, and he teamed up with a college friend to launch Scaleform, a business developing user interfaces for computer games. Their version of the startup’s garage was an old bank with wires hanging from the ceiling. Growth was slow at first, but after eight years they had 30 employees, and they sold the company to Autodesk.
In June 2012, Antonov and his business partner joined forces with Palmer Lucky to found Oculus, a California-based company making headsets for virtual reality software. They set themselves the audacious goal of raising $250,000 on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform based in New York, but on day one they took a startling $1m worth of orders. Demand was strong, but many technical challenges remained, and Antonov’s job was to fix them. Using gyroscopes, accelerometers, computer vision software, and cameras pointing in all directions, they made significant advances in tracking, and reducing latency. It meant long days of hard work, but he has fond memories of those days.
Just two years later, Facebook offered the enormous sum of $2.3bn for the business. With the technology still young and challenging, Facebook imposed a lengthy earn-out period, but Antonov now had a little more time to explore new ideas. In 2016 he found himself presenting at the same conference as Aubrey de Grey, who is probably the best-known longevity researcher in the world, and a tireless champion of the idea that aging is a disease which can and must be cured. Antonov caught the “longevity bug”.
Next he met Alex Zhavoronkov, a fellow Russian, and the founder of Insilico, a company that uses advanced AI to develop new drugs. The two men were about the same age, and Antonov was inspired. He started taking classes in biological chemistry at Berkeley University, picking up the basic science of longevity, and attending events for investors in the space.
He was excited to discover that for the first time in history we are acquiring the tools to enable us to really understand biology. The obvious example is the sequencing of the human genome, which initially cost $1m, and now costs a few hundred dollars. For the first time, we can meaningfully study epigenetics – the science of how genes tell proteins what changes to bring about in our bodies. There are about 30,000 genes in the human body, so this research requires vast amounts of data to be captured and processed; it requires huge storage capacity, and sophisticated AI tools to analyse the data.
An example of what can happen when you meet this requirement came in November 2020, when Google subsidiary DeepMind achieved a stunning feat of computation with a system called AlphaFold 2. It predicted how proteins fold far better than rival systems, and achieved a level of accuracy not previously expected for decades. Antonov comments that the next stage is to model how the proteins interact, using complex simulations.
Antonov left Facebook in 2019, and his main vehicle for his interest in longevity is Formic, a venture capital firm in San Francisco that he founded in June 2020. The name is partly a play on his surname. He doesn’t disclose the size of the fund, but he expects to invest $20-25m a year, including around $7m into early-stage businesses at seed capital or A round stage. He looks for a financial return on these investments, but since he is providing most of the funding, he can accept a little more risk than funds with a wide range of limited partners, which are often financial institutions investing your and my pensions.
He also runs a philanthropic foundation which makes donations in the longevity space of around $2m a year. These are to pursue fundamental science projects which are not yet capable of attracting investment.
Antonov’s distinctive goal within longevity is to help develop tools which will accelerate the understanding of the basic science of aging. He argues that although we can achieve a lot with inspired guesswork, and by trying various therapies to see what works, we won’t make decisive progress unless we understand the fundamental biology. And it is fearsomely complex. He comments that when you are young you think you can do anything. Then you discover how many smart people and how much time it takes to achieve anything significant. This is especially true in biotech because it is such a deep and complicated subject. Nevertheless, he has high hopes for tools like robotic process automation, which will shrink the time required for research.
Like others in the space, Antonov is excited by the dramatic growth of funding available for longevity research. He often co-invests with other players, and it is still a small enough field that he knows most of them. He still enjoys going to conferences, where he meets new people, and gets excited about what they are working on. It is a fast-moving field, he says, and you never know what is coming next.
Five years ago the money available for longevity research was tiny, and now it is probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Of course this is still small compared with the sums spent by traditional pharma and biotech companies. These firms are starting to look seriously at aging therapies, but it is still early days for them.
Antonov thinks that by 2035 we may have confirmation that some of the therapies being investigated today, like metformin and rapamycin and their improved variants, plus perhaps some supplements, are indeed able to extend our healthy lifespans by a few years or maybe even a decade. There will also be important improvements in our scientific tools. For instance, we should be able to simulate the chemical structure and interaction of organelles, the specialised components inside our cells, like nuclei, mitochondria, and ribosomes – these will predict certain phenotypes. While these models will accelerate research and help us better understand some aspects of aging, Antonov doubts we will be able to build flawlessly accurate digital models of biology by then – unless we have powerful quantum computers. As cell and tissue biology is so complex, wet-lab research will still be needed, but combined iterations on lab automation and modelling will lead to drastic improvements in our understanding of biology, and confidence in our ability to influence health span and longevity.
By 2050, Antonov hopes that therapies to actually reverse significant aspects of aging will be under serious discussion, although they may not be not solved for a further decade or so. All being well, we will be trying to programme our own biology – to grow any type of cell we need, and extract any data we need from it.