|Ellison seeking Fountain of Youth |
Centuries after America's early explorers searched in vain for the fabled waters of the Fountain of Youth, the second-richest man in the world has joined the hunt.
In hopes of stopping the process of aging, Larry Ellison, the brassy 55-year-old chief executive of Oracle, is quietly pumping millions of dollars into research and other investments. He's now the single largest private supporter of research in aging, and he's opening the spigot further.
Ellison's efforts come at a time when interest in age-related research is booming, spurred by breakthroughs in science that could soon promise billions and perhaps trillions of dollars in profits. Behind that interest are the aging baby boomers, the large number of people born in the prosperity that came after World War II, who have hit or are nearing their golden years. Few embody the preoccupation with age more than Ellison.
``Most people accept early on that they will die,'' said Ellison biographer Mark Wilson. ``But part of Larry Ellison is saying if he's smart enough, he should be able to beat it. . . . Death is just another kind of corporate opponent that he can outfox.''
Ellison and Oracle declined to comment last week. But in a previous speech, Ellison said the cost of health care for an aging population ``will literally bankrupt the nation,'' and that the boomers, including himself, are a ``demographic sword of Damocles'' hanging over the necks of younger generations.
Scientists generally agree that human life can be extended, but are divided about how much. Optimists hope a breakthrough in the next 30 years will extend human life to 150 years or more, but conservatives believe life will be extended slowly, as a side effect of regenerative drugs.
The investment community is taking note.
Steve Jurvetson, a partner at the venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, is scouting out ways to get into the field. He believes that within 30 years, people will live 120 to 140 years.
His partner, Tim Draper, has invested privately in a Sunnyvale firm, Layton Bioscience, which is refining a process of cell regeneration to cure brain damage after a stroke. Layton CEO Gary Snable said the work is directly applicable to extending age. This week, Layton is expected to close a $30 million round of funding.
Generating big money
Big-name venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has invested in publicly traded Geron. And Peter Friedli has invested in Osiris Therapeutics, which works with adult stem cells.
This month, Friedli joined Oracle to invest in Myriad Genetics, which researches the human proteome. It is Oracle's first foray into biotech.
However, researchers say Ellison's money is the most crucial because it seeds research at the earliest stages.
``Ellison's money has been extremely important,'' said Thomas Johnson, a University of Colorado geneticist who is trying to extend the lifespan of mice.
Ellison has shown a lifelong fascination with science and age.
Born to an unwed mother in 1944, Ellison was adopted by relatives and raised in a middle-class Jewish home in Chicago. A friend's father, a chemical researcher, became a role model. Ellison applied for medical school but never went.
Ellison later met Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg. They schmoozed most of the night at Ellison's villa in Atherton, talking mostly about biotech, Lederberg said. Lederberg then invited Ellison to his lab for a two-week ``vacation'' handling DNA in strains of bacteria -- ``so he could get his hands dirty,'' Lederberg said.
Ellison's adoptive mother died of cancer when he was in college. He said later that he didn't tell anyone about it for years.
Later, Robert Miner, co-founder of Oracle, also died of cancer at 52. Ellison pretended Miner didn't have cancer or wouldn't have it for long, according to those close to him.
``He was getting to an age when he was feeling vulnerable,'' said Lederberg.
Ellison insisted on keeping Miner on the payroll, according to Wilson's 1997 biography, ``The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison.''
``Dad and Larry were both into living forever, the Fountain of Youth kind of stuff,'' said Nicola Miner, his daughter, in the Wilson biography. ``I think that my dad's illness really freaked him out. My dad always said that Larry had a hard time facing his own mortality.''
When Ellison was told of Miner's death, he reportedly demanded proof.
``It doesn't make any sense to me,'' Ellison later told Wilson. ``Death has never made any sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there? Clearly the reason they're not there is they're off doing something else. Like Bob was. . . . Death makes me very angry. Premature death makes me angrier still.''
Obsession with youth
Every aspect of Ellison's life is youth-oriented, Wilson said, from physical fitness and a penchant for carrot juice to a love of cars and women and a nose job at an early age.
Some say his obsession with youth has spilled into the workplace. Ellison is being sued for age discrimination by Randy Baker, a former Oracle executive. Baker, who is 55 -- the same age as Ellison -- contends Ellison made several derogatory comments about age and older workers.
Baker was demoted, replaced by a manager who is about 40, and then fired. Ellison's attorneys would not comment on the pending case.
Ellison's investments into age research have slowly grown. He funded research at the University of California on DHEA, a hormone some believe could retard aging. Through his private venture fund, Tako Ventures, he has made investments in several other biotech companies.
One was Aeiveos -- named after Greek words for ``forever'' and ``young'' -- founded by Robert Bradbury, an early employee at Oracle. Aeiveos studied the genetic codes of centenarians, those who live to the ripe old age of 100 and more.
But soon it became clear that without a basic scientific breakthrough, profits were elusive, observers said. Ellison installed his former employee to run the company despite little knowledge of the field, some said. Bradbury, a Harvard dropout, is an Extropian, a group of believers in the idea that genetic engineering will prolong life.
``I find it intriguing,'' said Johnson, the scientist, ``that Larry Ellison was bankrolling them, but unlike his astuteness in running computer engineering, he ignored people who knew what was going on in the field he was funding.''
Ellison has committed $20 million a year to aging research through a newly created Ellison Medical Foundation. As of January, the foundation is investing $45 million a year, $25 million of which is to fight global infectious disease.
Ellison put Lederberg on the board, and recruited another big player: Richard Sprott, former director of the Biology of Aging program at the National Institute of Aging.
Sprott said Ellison is ``hands-on'' in funding decisions. But some say Lederberg and Sprott have reined him in.
`I think Ellison is more interested in the radical stuff,'' says Max More, president of the Extropy Institute, who has kept close tabs on funding in the field.
The foundation funds scores of academics studying aging, to get them to the stage where government or venture-capital funding can take over.
Several of the researchers Ellison has funded are now seeking to turn profits. One is Cynthia Kenyon, who extended the lifespan of worms 300 percent. She has teamed up with an associate of Arch Venture Capital, Cindy Bayley, to form a company called Elixir.
Meanwhile, profits or no profits, the world -- and Ellison -- will have to be patient.
``Even if the Fountain of Youth is discovered,'' Lederberg said, ``it will be 10 years before anyone got any benefit.''
# # #http://www.siliconvalley.com/docs/news/svtop/ellsn042901.htm