USTIN, Texas — The multitrillion-dollar drug industry is trying to disrupt with the kids, and it’s running into a communications gap.
At SXSW, the weeklong TED Talk with a music festival in there somewhere, biotech this week has been trying to elbow its way into a conference that has ceded most of its time to tech, with its promises of a currency revolution, Martian colonization, and a hack for anything that moves.
While Uber and Spotify hosted line-out-the-door events that fit the SXSW ethos, the drug industry’s efforts have mostly amounted to awkward attempts to speak the native language, like when Bristol-Myers Squibb, a 130-year-old pharmaceutical giant, tried to entice conference-goers with a session on “hacking childhood cancer.”
There was a biotech-focused panel on drugs to stop aging. And a steeped-in-science discussion of how new technologies might be used to boost brain performance. But each was dwarfed, in interest and attendance, by tech.
The reasons for the culture collision may be self-evident. No one told Larry Page he needed a placebo-controlled clinical trial to search the internet, and no one forced Mark Zuckerberg to endure a Food and Drug Administration inspection. Why should the would-be disruptors of biology play by biotech’s rules?
At the same time, the culture of Silicon Valley — move quickly, break objects — doesn’t always jibe with the realities of biotech. Investment timelines are painfully long and scientific sparks more often than not go dim on closer inspection. California’s moneyed incumbents didn’t get rich off the life sciences.
“That phenomenon exists, pointing out that the tech VCs don’t have Ph.D.s,” said Laura Deming, founder of a biotech venture capital firm called Longevity Fund, based in San Francisco.
But Deming believes the phenomenon is more a reflection of time than seriousness. Not long ago, biotech funds were staffed by investors who made money elsewhere and saw promise in the drug business.
“I talk to these biotech VCs and it’s like, ‘Look, guys, your lead partner is an investment banker,’” Deming said.
She believes tech investors will catch up.
‘Hack your employees’
Deming has a foot in both worlds. Her fund, which raised $22 million last year, is focused on biotech companies that do drug development the old-fashioned way, with patented molecules and clinical trials and interminable meetings with the FDA.
But her bio reads like Silicon Valley fan fiction.
Homeschooled in New Zealand, she became fascinated by the concept of aging when she was 8, wrapping her head around why her elderly grandmother could not do the same things as the rest of her family. At 11, she cold-emailed Cynthia Kenyon, a University of California, San Francisco, scientist renowned for her work in the field, and by 12, she had a job in Kenyon’s lab. Then, at 16, she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which she would, of course, drop out after two years in order to return to the Valley and become a VC.
“Literally, I looked like a preteen, and I couldn’t talk to people,” she said of her early fundraising efforts. Now she’s 23, and Longevity Fund has stakes in five biotech startups.
One of them is Unity Biotechnology, a company hoping to blunt the effects of aging by targeting bodily cells that are too old to multiply. Unity President Ned David, in a leather motorcycle jacket and a painted-on Joy Division shirt, delivered a SXSW presentation that, while lively, was not dissimilar to what biotech companies do at investor conferences — here’s how our drug works and here’s how and when we’re going to test it.
And yet as David explained the long regulatory road awaiting his company as it worked through clinical trials, a man looked up from his MacBook Air to ask what “biohacks” — diets, sleep schedules, drugs used without a doctor’s OK — might do the exact same thing right now.
At SXSW, that’s a popular question. The day before, in a ballroom roughly four times as large as the one that hosted Unity, attendees packed in to ask the same question and hope for a different answer.
“I’m here to make the argument that you have a moral imperative, if you’re an employer, to hack your employees,” said Dave Asprey, founder of Bulletproof 360, during a session called “Would You Let Your Boss Biohack You?”
Asprey’s company sells products with names like Brain Octane Oil, containing supplements Silicon Valley calls nootropics, which are purported to enhance cognitive function. He is also a biohacker. That means he takes nootropics to improve his performance in life, refuses to ingest a long list of chemicals that includes fluoride, and averages six hours and six minutes of sleep every night. During his talk, Asprey was wearing sienna-toned sunglasses, which, he explained, were hacking the light.
At Bulletproof, every employee has access to nootropics and is encouraged to expand his or her mind accordingly.
Asprey is particularly fond of modafinil, which he calls “the Limitless drug” in reference to a 2011 movie in which Bradley Cooper finds a pill that makes him a genius. Sold under the brand name Provigil, modafinil got Asprey through the Wharton School, he said, and it has “the safety profile of ibuprofen,” a statement with which the Drug Enforcement Administration would disagree.
Hank Greely, a professor of biomedical ethics at Stanford, finds the whole thing a little absurd. Most nootropics are innocuous supplements with insufficient data to back up their claims but no safety risks that should preclude their use, he said.
As for modafinil, “it’s great for staying awake, and I guess staying awake is a cognitive enhancement,” Greely said. But clinical trials on stimulants like modafinil have led to mixed or negative results on whether drug-induced wakefulness actually makes people better at using their brains.
“The bad news is, right now the best thing we have is pretty much caffeine,” Greely said.
Meet Dr. Grasshopper
If science might turn up its nose at the disruptors, some disruptors are prepared to return the favor.
Heshan Illangkoon is a self-diagnosed polymath who divides his time as an entrepreneur in residence at the University of Florida between astrobiology and synthetic biology. He goes by Dr. Grasshopper.
Among his scores of business ideas is one derived from surprisingly hairy mice. He and his fellow Ph.D. scientists dosed lab mice with a bunch of insulin and noticed that they began sprouting hair. When they took a look at the follicles, they realized it was the result of a hormone called IG1, which reared up in response to the insulin. Now they’ve got plans to whip up a hormone-laced gel they believe could safely replicate that phenomenon on the bald pates of humans.
“That’s a billion-dollar product right there,” Illangkoon said.
And what about the years-long process of getting FDA approval?
Illangkoon responded with a not-fit-for-print suggestion for what could be done with the FDA. He then retrieved from the pocket of his pastel pink pants a handheld genome sequencer to demonstrate how new technology has democratized what had once been monopolized by the gatekeepers of Big Science.
On the floor of SXSW’s cavernous trade show, biotech wasn’t faring any better.
The crowd flocked to demonstrations of augmented reality machines and VR headsets, stepping around carpet-bound robots that promised to broadcast WiFi, stage a lightsaber duel, or just fetch a beer.
Away from the hordes, tucked in the southwest corner of the sprawling convention center were SXSW’s “health” exhibitors, a crop of personal genomics companies and medical data startups that attracted a fraction of the onlookers one can get with a dancing robot.
The only biotech exhibitor was Foregen, a company “promoting genital integrity through regenerative medicine,” according to the business card of Tyler Drozd, its lead director. That means using stem cells to turn foreskins from a donor into transplantable tissues for men who seeking to reverse their circumcisions or just otherwise want a new foreskin.
Is there a market for that? Drozd says there are 130 million men who “might be interested” in the U.S. alone.
“And there’s 3,000 more every day,” said Drozd, who uses air quotes when speaking the phrase “circumcision for medical reasons.”
Foregen is currently crowdfunded, but it’s working with “a Wall Street guy” to raise a Series A and hopes to start human clinical trials in 2019, Drozd said.
Outside, a man made laps around the conference on a motorized scooter, wearing a sign with the word “Circumcision” followed by emojis depicting vomiting, being sad, and weeping in agony, and ending with a simple directive: “YouTube that ish.”
His work was unrelated to Foregen’s.
The importance of presence
So why is biotech still showing up every year?
Rachel Haurwitz, CEO of a genome-editing company called Caribou Biosciences, knows SXSW isn’t necessarily the place to meet new investors
“I think it’s our responsibility to talk about what we’re doing and communicate clearly with the public,” Haurwitz said. Scientific advances like genome-editing have vast ethical implications, and at places like SXSW, “we get asked questions we need to be able to answer,” she said. (It doesn’t hurt that the tech firms that roost SXSW employ people Caribou might want to poach, Haurwitz said.)
Biotech types will be forever cloistered if they spend all their time talking among themselves, said Longevity Fund’s Deming. And the industry could benefit by learning to make its case to everyday people, as the tech sector has done for decades.
That said, Deming wasn’t long for the conference. She flew in Monday morning to speak at Unity’s event and was on a plane back to San Francisco that afternoon. One can handle only so much disruption.