Sam Altman invested $180 million into a company trying to delay death

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There was reason to worry. In 2016, after Peter Thiel, one of Altman’s mentorsexpressed interest in possibly getting age-defeating blood transfusions, he was mocked in the media as a vampire on the prowl for young victims. A year later, the HBO parody show Silicon Valley drive the stake in with an episode called “Blood Boy.” In it, a fictional tech CEO takes a meeting while his veins are connected to those of a handsome young man introduced as his “transfusion associate.”

“We don’t really want … these old billionaires having to pay the plasma donors to come give them donations,” Betts-LaCroix told an audience in Europe last summer. He said the company instead hopes to find more “plausible” interventions, like drugs that mimic the effects of blood replacement and could be used by millions of people.

“We don’t want to discriminate against billionaires. I’m just saying we don’t want therapies that are super expensive and awkward and difficult to implement,” he added.

For his part, Altman says his personal anti-aging regimen consists of “trying to eat healthy, exercise, sleep enough” and taking metformin, a diabetes drug that has also become popular in Silicon Valley circles on the theory that it might be able to keep people healthier for longer. “I hope to use a Retro therapy someday!” Altman says.

OpenAI for longevity

One reason anti-aging research can seem like a promising area for investment is that it has not drawn much funding in the past, at least relative to the size of the problem. Nearly a fifth of the US GDP—$4.3 trillion, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services—is spent on health care, and much of that is to treat the elderly. A widespread view among longevity researchers is that if aging could be delayed with a drug, it could help postpone a host of serious diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

To make the widest impact, Betts-LaCroix says, he is looking for interventions that can be scaled up and reach “millions or billions” of people.

“We don’t want to discriminate against billionaires. I’m just saying we don’t want therapies that are super expensive and awkward and difficult to implement,”

Betts-LaCroix

By the time Retro came out of stealth, though, the assault on old age was going through a period of intense popularity. The Saudi government said it would give out $1 billion in grants each year and an organization called Altos Labs had formed with what it would claim was $3 billion in funding. It too had famous investors, like Yuri Milner and, according to some sources, Jeff Bezos.

In comparison to these ventures, Altman’s bet now looks relatively small, even making Retro seem like an underdog. One of its projects is to test rejuvenation techniques on T cells, part of the immune system that play an important role in fighting infection and staving off cancer. These cells are especially useful because they can be removed, rejuvenated in the lab, and then returned to a patient. But other startups have similar goals, including Altos and NewLimit, a biotech company started by the cryptocurrency billionaire Brian Armstrong last year. Competition for research talent is especially stiff. Altos sucked up half the leading scientists in reprogramming when it convinced two dozen university professors to leave their jobs, offering million-dollar salaries, among other benefits.

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