The inaugural Longevity Therapeutics summit began with a workshop led by Kelsey Moody , CEO of Ichor Therapeutics, a company dedicated to pre-clinical contract research on the mechanisms of aging. His presentation was organized around answering a key question in longevity science: What is the best way to create of a development pipeline for medication targeting the aging process itself?
Building a geroscience company from scratch
After a brief introduction of the conceptual underpinnings of his company’s research efforts—acknowledging significant inspiration from the work of Aubrey de Grey—Moody set the stage by describing the ways in which Ichor was designed to address the critical challenges of biotech in the anti-aging sector.
His approach to setting up Ichor was motivated by a previous bad experience with a biotech venture he started before entering medical school, in which a gap in funding forced liquidation of the entire company. To mitigate the risk of a similar outcome, he committed to doing all of the experimental work in-house and owning the facilities and laboratory equipment himself. Version 1.0 of the company—including the animal facility—was built in his own apartment.
Over the intervening years (which involved an intermediate setup in a derelict hair salon), Ichor grew into a much larger operation, including a bioprocessing team to support drug discovery and biologics production; a cell biology team to perform pathway mapping and IC50 determinations; and a 2000-animal SPF vivarium (much too large to fit in the living room). The Ichor of today is a vertically integrated company with a focus on aging, with core competencies in small molecule discovery, protein engineering, stem cell biology, lab animal husbandy, and clinical trial design.
Moody emphasized that the level of control and ownership that Ichor enjoys would likely not have been possible in the conventional hotbeds of biotech—the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Boston—simply because facility rent would have prevented the company from purchasing its own buildings and equipment. The company, which is based in Syracuse, retains complete control over its own operations, and has a portfolio of smaller companies devoted to specific research topics—it is the IP of these subsidiaries that would be the targets of acquisitions by larger entities (e.g., multinational pharmaceutical houses like Roche or Pfizer).
The distinctive aspects of Ichor’s structure yields value for investors in several ways, making an investment of comparable value much less expensive, decreasing the start-up time for new ventures, stabilizing the enterprise (because the company can weather gaps in funding), and increasing overall flexibility.
Getting the job done
Moody then went on to discuss Ichor’s operations—in other words, how the company executes on its mission of support its clients, pursuing its strategic priorities and advancing its vision of delivering next-generation therapies for the illnesses of aging. At the core, perhaps obviously, the company seeks to maximize useful work while minimizing the amount of resources used.
Key to the success of this approach is the pursuit of single goals in each project—rather than writing giant experimental protocols with multiple arms and endpoints, Moody says, it ends up being more efficient “to ask one question at a time.” This helps to focus efforts while maintaining the flexibility that keeps the company nimble.
Because aging is a new discipline in the context of drug discovery, Moody argues, it is especially important to carefully analyze and constantly improve workflow—identifying the sources of (inevitable) errors, correcting them when possible, and then taking steps to prevent future errors of the same class.
These steps preserve the integrity of experimental data and help to forestall problems with reproducibility (which beset all biological research but can be particularly salient in long, expensive lifespan experiments whose results are known to differ among investigators and institutions).
Along those lines, Moody’s strict policy for discussing results is that “No discussions about data take place without the data in front of us”—a strategy that provides a critical reality check on evaluation of complex datasets.
After a discussion of fundraising strategies, Moody moved to wider focus, offering some general advice for innovators in the aging space. In the course of the discussion, he said something that will likely stay with me for a long time, and something that both entrepreneurs and academics might do well to take to heart: “The people who would steal your ideas are not capable of doing so.”
All too often, people doing intellectually novel work are cagey or even secretive about their best ideas because they are concerned that the act of sharing them will diminish their novelty. Moody’s aphorism argues otherwise, and implies a better world in which those with the ability to capitalize on new ideas have nothing to lose—and everything to gain—by discussing them with other motivated innovators in the same space.