Profile of Michael Antonov

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.

The optimistic investor: Jim Mellon

The greatest investment opportunity in history

Jim Mellon is an optimist. Which is just as well, since he is one of the people trying to engineer a complete transformation in attitudes towards aging – attitudes within the medical profession, among the public at large, and crucially, in the investment community.

As an example of his optimism, Mellon says that, thanks largely to the vertiginous advances in artificial intelligence, “if you can stay alive for another ten to twenty years, and if you aren’t yet over 75, and if you remain in reasonable health for your age, you have an excellent chance of living to over 110 years old.” And he means living to 110 in very good health. Not dribbling or drooling. For the investment community, he argues that “the incremental addition of 30 years or so to average lifespans over the next two or three decades will represent the single greatest investment opportunity in recorded history.”

Previous successes

It’s a big claim, but Mellon already has some remarkable achievements to his name. His optimism served him well in his career as an investor before he became interested in longevity. He prospered in financial services in the 1980s, but his first really big break came during a business trip to Russia in 1994. Realising that shares in state companies were being sold by Russian citizens at a massive discount, he arranged for a suitcase containing $2 million in cash to be flown in from London, and in the course of a couple of days he spent the lot. A few weeks later the shares were worth $17 million. Today, Mellon is based in the Isle of Man, where he is the biggest landowner, and he shuttles between homes there and in Ibiza, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

He has also dabbled in politics, where he has the dubious distinction of being the person who introduced Nigel Farage to Arron Banks. Mellon’s optimism is even strong enough to allow him to think that Brexit might still turn out well.

The Big Bang in AI

But he abandoned politics some years ago, and now concentrates on investing, and in particular, investing in anti-aging technology. He has been a leading biotech investor for two decades, and since the Big Bang in AI in 2012, when Geoff Hinton finally got the backpropagation algorithm to work properly, and thus gave birth to deep learning, Mellon has seen the enormous potential of applying modern AI to longevity.

In 2016 he co-founded Juvenescence, a venture capital and development company focused on modifying aging and increasing human health span and longevity. Juvenescence raised $50 million in 2018 and another $100 million in 2019.

In April this year it launched its first consumer product, Metabolic Switch – pills which raises the level of ketones in the blood. Ketones are molecules produced by the body when it uses fat for fuel instead of sugar – which is a good thing. The usual way to achieve this is with a calorie restrictive diet, which most of us struggle to maintain.

Metabolic Switch is only available in the US at the moment, but no doubt there will be a few bottles on Mellon’s bathroom shelves. Understandably, Mellon is coy about what other anti-aging therapies he uses: we humans are all different, and what works for one can be harmful to another, so recommendations are perilous. But he does comment that just about every person he has met in the longevity space takes metformin, a treatment for diabetes which is currently in clinical trials for use as a general anti-aging drug.

Juvenescence was also an early investor in a company called Insilico, founded by Alex Zhavoronkov, which is one of the foremost exponents of the use of cutting-edge AI in longevity research – namely deep learning and Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), which pit two AI systems against each other in a competition to produce the best solution to a problem. Insilico works with mainstream pharmaceutical firms, and when Insilico span out a subsidiary, called Deep Longevity, which focuses specifically on longevity research, it was acquired by another of Mellon’s investment vehicles, Hong Kong-based Regent Pacific.

The Illderly

Mellon’s 2017 book on longevity (also called “Juvenescence”) explains his ambition for the space. Traditionally, when people get old they become “illderly”, because our role in life is to “learn, then earn, then retire and expire.” Now, to quote the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, “the idea is to die young – as late as possible.”

There is nothing inevitable about aging, or about its rate. Californian bristlecone pines are believed to live for 5,000 years, and there are long-lived mammalian creatures as well. Some marine creatures do not display any signs of aging at all, including hydra, jellyfish, planarian worms, and coral. Certain human cells have immortal characteristics too. When a woman gives birth, she produces a baby which is “new”. Her “germline” (reproduction-related) cells produce a child with no signs of age.

These and many other considerations combine with the unreasonable effectiveness of modern AI to lead some people to believe that significant advances in longevity are imminent. These advances probably cannot happen without the active participation of the wider pharmaceutical industry, and the acceptance by policy makers and regulators that aging is a disease, not just an unfortunate and inevitable component of the human condition. There is still considerable reluctance among major pharmaceutical companies to contemplate specific anti-aging therapeutic developments. But there are encouraging signs of this reluctance being challenged, especially at Novartis and AstraZeneca.

Like the dial-up internet

Beyond the pharma giants, Mellon reckons there are 255 companies which claim to be specifically targeting aging, of which 35 are listed on stock markets. But he thinks that only a minority of them are genuinely working to tackle aging, as opposed to one of the diseases it causes, like cancer, dementia, or heart disease. He likens the state of the longevity industry today to the internet industry of 20 years ago, when it was still in its dial-up phase, and downloading information (or, heaven forbid, images) was like sucking jelly through a straw. And although longevity will have such a massive impact on all of us that you might expect progress to be expedited, Mellon points out that the internet did not have to go through lengthy and expensive FDA trials at every step.

To help speed things along, he is involved with the launch of an industry association towards the end of this year. Members of the longevity industry are unusually collaborative and open with each other. The opportunity is vast, and it is far more important to increase the size of the pie than to squabble over shares in it.

Mellon is also funding longevity research at his alma mater, Oriel College in Oxford University. (Disclaimer: it’s also mine.) The university is a powerhouse for many kinds of science, but longevity is not prominent among them. The Mellon Longevity Science Programme helps fund the research of Professor Lynne Cox into the senescence of the human immune system.

What does the optimistic Mr Mellon think is possible within the next few decades? If the green shoots visible in the pharmaceutical and financial communities continue to grow, he thinks that by 2035 we could have some drugs in wide circulation with significant, proven anti-aging impacts. In addition, the first gene therapies could be starting to prove their value, although this may be a harder sell to the wider public. By 2050 it may be evident that some people are going to live to 150 years.

We live in interesting times.

3rd editions, 2 books, 3 formats

I spent a lot of 2020 updating and expanding these two books, and the third editions of both both are now available in all three formats – kindle, paperback and audio.

Part One (AI Today), and Part Two (AI Tomorrow) are now common to both books, and they account for most of the updates to Surviving AI.  Part Three of The Economic Singularity is also significantly updated and developed, to the extent that I have changed the book’s sub-title, which is now “Artificial Intelligence, and Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism”.

If you know anyone who hasn’t yet read these books, now would be a great time to encourage them.