David Botstein, 71, on Joining Google’s Anti-Aging Play, Calico
His term as director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University expired in July. He’s 71. He had recently won a “Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences” worth $3 million. He was planning to retire.
Then his old friend Art Levinson called. The gist of it had something to do with Google, with research into aging and life-extension, and a new funding model to support basic science that doesn’t fit in today’s academia, government, or industry. The new idea, to be called Calico, was (and still is) taking shape as a sort of organizational hybrid between an academic institute and a company.
So Botstein jumped at the chance to join and be the full-time chief scientific officer for Levinson, the former CEO of Genentech. The new job puts Botstein in position to shape a new organization that aspires to do nothing less than extend the human lifespan by decades. Skeptics come at this idea from all angles. Some doubt the science, others worry about the societal implications of an aging population that’s already struggling mightily to pay for healthcare.
“I’m not looking for something cushy,” Botstein said in a phone interview yesterday. “I’m looking for what’s interesting and appropriate.”
Botstein hasn’t personally done a lot of research on aging or life extension. Why did this strike him as interesting? For one, he and Levinson have known each other for more than 30 years, and worked together at Genentech in the late ‘80s. “We’ve always had very good relationship and community of views—a lot of agreement on things that go on in science, in the academic sector and in the biotech or industrial sector,” Botstein said.
While some people may have been surprised (me included) that he would leave a tenured faculty gig at one of the nation’s top universities for the uncertainty of a full-time job in a startup, Botstein said it made sense to him. Although he says he’s in good health, he didn’t foresee spending his next decade or so in academia. Young students who come to Princeton are looking for a thesis advisor like Botstein who will help them in their academic careers, and that’s more of a long-term commitment than the average 71 year old can make, he said.
Plus, he sounds like a man ready for a new challenge. “I do believe that those of us in academia who have had a good run shouldn’t hang on forever. It’s not intended for people to hang on forever,” Botstein said.
More important, Botstein says, was the opportunity to go after really big basic science questions with the backing of a powerhouse like Google. The wealth, combined with the enthusiastic backing of CEO Larry Page, can be used to tackle basic science questions that are perceived as too risky, too far-out, too expensive, or too unconventional to be supported by today’s funding organizations. Page, describing the new venture in a posting on Google Plus in September, said ”don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses.”
That’s what got him. “I’m a basic scientist. I’m not a translational anything,” Botstein said. “I start with the opposite premise of the usual translational thinking. I start with the premise that we understand very little of the world. Specifically, we understand a tiny fraction of what’s written in our genomes. We understand a tiny fraction of what parts of medicine work well, and what parts are just tradition. We understand virtually nothing about the microbiome. The value of basic science, of course, is once we do understand something we might be able to do something.”
By focusing less on basic biology, and more on short-term applications, scientists today run the risk of making new and better iron lungs, rather than coming up something far better, like a polio vaccine, Botstein said, to use an old saw.
That’s one way to think of the driving concept at Calico—it’s about finding ways to come up with a polio vaccine for aging, not new iron lungs.
“We’re scientists, and we’re going to sit together and ask people their thoughts and we’re going to try to define areas that fit into this general but well-defined space, and focus on things that wouldn’t get done,” Botstein said.
The exact operating model for Calico is still to be determined. Although Botstein said he’s an admirer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—a nonprofit which finances a variety of research groups outside of its own walls to tackle big problems—Calico will likely take a different form. It could develop ideas internally or bring them in-house for further work, as well as help support external collaborators.
Given that three of the key players in the earlygoing—Levinson, Botstein, and Hal Barron—all have experience working at Genentech, they aren’t allergic to working with industry. “All the people involved believe in the power of capitalism, and venture, and risk. We’re not looking for guarantees,” Botstein said.