Consumer interest in health and longevity has never been greater. Books, podcasts and the rise of gurus like Wim Hof, whose ice baths promise to reduce inflammation, are all contributing to the trend.
Family offices are also jumping in, funding research and making direct investments. Some offices, such as those belonging to Silicon Valley tech giants like Paul Allen, Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos, have established their own institutes to research cellular regeneration and life extension therapies.
Overall, family office investments are overweight by 43% in technology and 34% in health care and life sciences, according to a Goldman Sachs investment survey released this year.
The sector attracts family offices because they’re better able to withstand the volatility of biotech, while lower valuations in the sector have made it more attractive to patient investors, said Sara Naison Tarajano, global head of private wealth management capital markets for Goldman Sachs. The biggest attraction, she said, is personal connection and the power to propel outcomes.
“Family offices are very focused on being at the forefront of innovation," Tarajano said, "and you’d be hard-pressed to find a family that isn't impacted by chronic disease or something that biotech looks to address.”
Palo Alto, California-based Dr. Ronjon Nag is an entrepreneur and AI pioneer who co-founded companies that were sold to Motorola, BlackBerry and Apple. He later attended Stanford medical school and is now an adjunct professor of genetics at the university. As an extension of his family office, Nag founded R42, a hybrid organization that functions as a venture capital firm, very-early-stage accelerator, research institute and education platform with a team of scientific advisers.
Typically, Nag said, there are two research strategies: one focused on individual conditions resulting from age, versus his approach — tackling age as the cause of several diseases.
“Traditional biotech says, ‘I’m going to solve pancreatic cancer.’ The other theory is, maybe if we fix certain things, everything else gets fixed at the same time,” he said. “It's a multiplier effect. If you can fix aging, maybe you can solve eight, nine diseases all at once instead of doing them one at a time. As an investor, we look at both areas. But I'm pushing for the latter concept.”
Nag envisions a moonshot — a vaccine for aging that prevents the deterioration of cells that happens with aging and leads to chronic disease. “We have a company where we are trying to push forward computational models to create a vaccine for aging," he said. "We’re at an inflection point where we can use learnings and tools from science and genomics to get a quantum jump. Philanthropy, venture capital and the entrepreneurial process can speed things along.”
His role at Stanford, Nag said, gives him unique access to an organic ideas factory.
“With the university, there are plenty of ideas just lying on the floor waiting to be picked up. You’ve also got an expert on every topic within 100 meters of wherever you're standing.”
The integration of academia, Nag said, is critical to commercial spinoffs, leading to sustainable funding and a win-win scenario for institutions and investors.
“We feel we can't move things quickly enough unless you are actually putting money to work in an investment process,” he said. “Then, the university does well, the family office does well. And then that recycles capital. With donations, eventually, you run out.”
The benefits go beyond financial, giving investors a frontline seat, Nag said. “If you start investing in health tech, you get a preview of what’s basically going to take 20 years to go from an idea in a lab to CVS.”
Though there are benefits for families with expertise in biotech starting their own research institutes, Nag and others caution that it’s a resource-heavy endeavor best suited to those with deep knowledge of the sector.
The Novato, California-based Buck Institute for Research on Aging, founded in 1999 from a legacy gift, was the first institute in the world to focus solely on the biology of aging. It also takes a root-cause, holistic view of aging, encouraging collaboration across the medical spectrum — between cancer researchers and those researching Parkinson’s, for example.
“It was envisioned as something that the world was going to need,” said Brian Van Weele, the Buck Institute’s chief philanthropic officer. “Back then, we believed aging was just an unalterable process that we couldn't do anything about.”
The Buck has brought together several hundred multi-disciplinary research scientists to better understand the processes, mechanisms and pathways that drive aging. The philosophy mirrors that of Nag, Van Weele said.
“We believe that aging is the root cause for all the chronic diseases we experience as we get older," he said. "If we can understand the initiators of these pathways, we might be able to slow, prevent or reverse all of the chronic diseases we experience.”
The goal, Van Weele said, is to extend healthy living years.
The Buck is independent and partners with public and philanthropic entities, including family offices, private foundations and donor-advised funds.
“In some of our labs, in our animal models, we can cure Alzheimer’s," Van Weele said. "We can extend life five to 10 times the average lives span — models. We think we’re in the early days.”
Van Weele has seen philanthropic investment almost double over the past several years, with family offices getting involved in a range of ways, from funding basic science to different phases of pre-clinical and clinical research — testing in human models as well as developing products and commercialization. Family office venture capital, equity investment funds and philanthropy fund an average of two spin-out companies annually, Van Weele said.
“They get a first look to get in, particularly in an area they care about," he said. "The public good benefits, and the commercial opportunity is huge.”
For investors and family offices looking to partner directly with independent institutes like The Buck, Van Weele suggests it can be easier than it appears.
“An investor or family office can call us and say: ‘I care about Alzheimer’s. I want to move us toward a solution; how can I help?’ We’re very nimble and can go in many different directions," he said. "There’s no authority we need to push things through.