For a 35-year-old, Silicon Valley startup founder and ex-Khan Academy engineer Ben Kamens has a rather intimate relationship to disease.
Since he was a teenager, Kamens has been taking insulin to stay alive. Kamens, who has Type 1 diabetes, relies on the drug to do the work traditionally accomplished by a healthy pancreas. Each injection helps ferry the sugar from food into his body’s various cells, steadying his energy levels and preventing him from falling into a coma or dying.
Living with the condition also gave him an appreciation for what it means to be healthy. And that awareness spurred him to create a startup called Spring Discovery, which is dedicated to finding therapies designed to beat diseases like his own.
“Aging is the single greatest risk factor for some of the worst diseases on Earth,” Kamens told Business Insider.
Indeed, as we get older, the risk of many diseases — from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s — skyrockets. Age is also a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, which most often develops after age 45. Kamens sees his company as an engine whose job is to shed light on what changes in our cells and tissues as we age so we can discover new therapies that reverse those changes.
By combining a team of engineers trained in machine learning and artificial intelligence with scientists whose backgrounds include stem-cell biology, regenerative medicine, genetics, neuroscience, and dermatology, Kamens believes they’ll make discoveries more quickly.
Until recently, Kamens’ antiaging startup remained fairly quiet. With only $4 million in funding, it paled in comparison to BioAge Labs, which has raised $11 million, and Google spin-off Calico. But the most recent round brings Spring to $22 million in total funding.
The fresh $18 million comes chiefly from First Round Capital, the venture firm behind startups like Square and Flatiron Health, and General Catalyst, which backed Snap and e-commerce site Jet. Other new funders include Beijing-based ZhenFund, which joins existing big-name backers like Laura Deming’s Longevity Fund and boutique Silicon Valley venture firm Felicis.
The quest to live longer and better has given us a handful of tools
In Silicon Valley, aging is considered a collective battle. Dozens of startup founders with diverse backgrounds have told Business Insider that they believe defeating aging is our generation’s prime directive.
Funding in the field is at an all-time high: So far this year, investors have poured $850 million into the antiaging field, according to a recent CB Insights report. Before 2016, almost no one was investing in antiaging research, the authors of the report said.
Studying what causes aging and then designing therapies that could stop it is incredibly tough. Humans take a long time to grow frail, and that’s a reality that includes the researchers who are trying to beat it.
So instead of studying only people, researchers also analyze human cells, along with a host of animals ranging from insects to mice to monkeys. In those creatures, scientists have been able to successfully slow the aging process using a handful of rough techniques.
That’s helped generate what Kamens likes to call “an unignorable amount of evidence” that we can slow the biological processes of aging in animals using those techniques, which include the following:
The problem is that these tools don’t illuminate the true causes of aging or show us much about how to beat it.
“All of these interventions are pretty raw — they’re crude — and oftentimes no one knows why they’re getting the results they’re getting,” Kamens said.
What Spring Discovery brings to the table
Kamens’ leadership and advisory teams include top-flight scientists from universities like Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as researchers from Google and pharmaceutical giants like Amgen.
With the new money, Spring is expanding its laboratory in San Carlos, California, Kamens told Business Insider. The space is currently equipped to run full experiments on biological materials including human cells and mice. Kamens is also planning to hire roughly 20 new team members over the next two years, roughly tripling their current staff.
Kamen’s advisers include Elad Gil, the serial entrepreneur behind genetics startup Color Genomics, along with Sasha Kamb, the head of neuroscience discovery at Amgen, and Y Combinator partner Sam Altman. His leadership team includes biologists from Berkeley and senior engineers from Google and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
In addition, Silicon Valley startup prodigy Deming of Longevity Fund, the only venture fund in the Valley that’s entirely devoted to antiaging, helped train Kamens and some of his team by way of her own longevity-accelerator program.
“Laura was a huge source of inspiration,” Kamens said. “She changed my life.”
Despite their star-studded credentials, Kamens acknowledged that aging research happens slowly and that his team has a lot of work to do. He views their efforts in aging as akin to the early work done to illuminate the causes of diabetes.
At first, when scientists had no idea what caused the disease, a team of researchers simply took out an animal’s pancreas. Then they added it — piece by piece — back to its body until they realized that it was the organ’s inability to make insulin that was causing problems.
Studying aging is a bit like studying diabetes back then, he said.
“We all see the potential to make real progress,” Kamens said, “and we’re speeding towards it as fast as we can.”