Illustration by Luis Rendon
Silicon Valley titans have hacked phones, computers, even cars. Now, they are taking to their own bodies, reprogramming themselves for longevity, intelligence and youthfulness.
A microbiologist there uses needles and electricity to retool his DNA. “Smart drugs” are as common at tech firms as coffee. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison invested $430 million in anti-aging research.
When Gavin Belson, the tech exec played by Matt Ross on “Silicon Valley,” received an infusion from his “blood boy” on a recent episode, it lampooned Valley excesses.
Here are five real ways in which Silicon Valley movers aim to live longer, look better and learn faster.
The company: Ambrosia, founded in 2016. Ambrosia provides the plasma of teenagers to adults via transfusion.
The claim: Age reversal and repair of failing body parts. “We are seeing people’s organs and bodily functions going back in age,” says founder Jesse Karmazin, 32, who has a medical degree from Stanford University.
The premise: Receiving 2 liters of blood from high-school students, Karmazin says, “is like jump-starting a battery. Younger blood increases the body’s ability to repair itself. On average, cardiovascular health increases by 10 percent [within a month, measured via biomarkers].” Unlike on “Silicon Valley,” the red stuff comes from a blood bank, not directly from a studly hunk’s body.
Investors: None. Blood recipients pay $8,000 to cover costs.
Expert opinion: Ambrosia-style transfusions “need to be studied,” says Dr. Peter Attia, a certified oncologist whose medical practices in NYC and San Diego center on longevity. “It has worked in mice; but there is an enormous difference between mice and humans. Plus, there are risks of infection and blood incompatibility, which is rare but I have seen it happen. I’ll be interested in this once the data is better.”
The company: Elysium, founded in 2014. Elysium puts out a dietary supplement called BASIS.
The claim: BASIS is designed to slow down the decline of NAD+, a molecule that keeps cells energized and is a hallmark of youthfulness.
The premise: “As we age, our NAD+ levels decline,” says Elysium spokesperson Victoria Davis. “NAD+ plays a vital role in our cells’ ability to function, repair damage and sustain life. Ingredients in BASIS slow the decline of NAD+.”
Investors: Hot venture-capital firms such as General Catalyst, Breyer Capital and Morningside Ventures.
Expert opinion: “If [BASIS is] getting the NAD+ into the right place, and if NAD+ makes you live longer, then Elysium could make you live longer,” says Dr. Attia. “But this is a bottom-up approach. [Bottom-up approaches] rarely work in biology.”
The product: Nootroo, founded in 2014, is a nootropic, or so-called “smart drug,” that’s marketed for “neuroscience research purposes.”
The claim: Nootroo, according to founder Eric Matzner, 29, “provides higher levels of brain function, which enhance learning and allow you to be more focused.”
The premise: Piracetam, a primary ingredient in Nootroo and other nootropics, “is a modified neurotransmitter that tells the brain to release more of the substance that forms memory,” says Matzner.
Investors: Anonymous tech folk in Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach.
Expert opinion: According to Andrew Hill, who teaches brain aging at UCLA and helped develop a nootropic, “The effect is subtle and it can take a few days to kick in. People watch [‘Limitless’] and expect immediate results. So they sometimes take too much and wind up with headaches.” He advises small doses and patience. Nootroo has not been evaluated by the FDA.
The company: Human Longevity, founded in 2013, is a facility in La Jolla, Calif., where cutting-edge technology is used to analyze the human body and find hidden maladies.
The claim: Human Longevity can, according to the company’s literature, “determine genetic variations, lifestyle choices and environmental factors that contribute to aging and illness, so that health-care decisions can be proactive.” From $4,900 to $25,000, clients aim to gain awareness of illnesses before they become immediately apparent.
The premise: Via genome mapping, MRIs, digital imaging of the body (including “four-dimensional pictures of the heart”) and proprietary software, Human Longevity dives deeply and generates health reports. Company founder Craig Venter, 70, was a primary force in sequencing the second human genome.
Investors: Silicon Valley favorites including Celgene, GE Ventures and Illumina.
Expert opinion: Andre Watson, a biomedical engineer and CEO of Silicon Valley’s Ligandal, a medical-tech company devising delivery systems for genes and gene editing, believes that Human Longevity’s examination can be done independently for much less than $25,000. Others agree with this assessment. But, Watson says, Human Longevity has “supersophisticated science and can sometimes give really unique identifiers [of diseases]. The full analysis really is their secret sauce.” That said, he warns, “knowing that you have the proclivity [to identify a disease] is different from being able to intervene and do something about it right now.”
The product: Zero, a fasting tracker, released in 2016. Zero is an app that keeps track of users’ fasting hours.
The claim: Fasting is a free way of extending life and increasing well-being. Among strivers in Silicon Valley, it is viewed as one more tool for gaining an edge over the competition. “After two days of fasting, your body starts burning fat for energy,” says Kevin Rose, 40, the venture capitalist behind Zero and a proponent of fasting. “You have an overabundance of energy, lose weight and get mental clarity.”
The premise: According to Rose, a five-day fast “places the body in a smart repair mode. You get rid of the weak cells. They die off and put you into a healthier cycle.”
Investors: Rose — who put early money into Twitter, Facebook and Blue Bottle — financed it himself.
Expert opinion: According to Dr. Peter Attia, “There’s reason to believe in the benefits of fasting, but they are not definitive due to limitations of studying longevity in humans.” Studies have found that intermittent fasting benefits patients with asthma and breast cancer. Attia cautions that there is a big difference between organized fasting and regular caloric deprivation. The latter can increase “risk of infection and traumatic injury. You have less muscle mass and brittle bones.”