Simon Melov + Mark S. Lucanic
Seasoned researchers taking on a herculean task – treating aging and age-related diseases.
Company: Gerostate Alpha
What drew you to this particular niche of aging and age-related diseases?
(Simon) Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to work on aging and, more specifically, understand the biology of aging to develop therapeutics for it. I read a lot of science fiction when I was younger, and that's heavily fueled my interest in this area. There’s been a multitude of stories written about extending human lifespan that fired my imagination, and drove me into this field of research. I used to keep a list of all the books I’d read and movies I’d watched on this idea – a few memorable ones that come to mind are Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, Dancers at the End of Time by Moorcock, Fall by Neal Stephenson, multiple Star Trek episodes of course, and so many more.
Then, a couple years back, I became a bit frustrated with the pace of academic research. It's very structured now, and we've gotten quite good at it – in terms of getting NIH funding and corporate-sponsored research. But, it's just slow. So, we thought, maybe there's a better way of developing therapeutics for aging, and that's why we started Gerostate Alpha.
(Mark) I kind of fell into the aging niche. My background is in the nitty gritty of how organisms develop by using genetic analysis and screening for novel genes and molecules. Since we’ve started investigating aging, we've been looking for mechanisms and new genes that modulate the lifespan of organisms – the molecular systems that dictate how something ages.
Why do you think Gerostate’s research approach is the strongest one possible?
(Simon) What we’re doing on the technical level is screening tens of thousands of molecular candidates to find the most promising ones for slowing tissue aging, and possibly extending lifespan. We have all the equipment we need to just crank the handle and assess a ton of molecules – finding and characterizing the best ones. The practical, physical screening we’re doing – as opposed to theoretical, computer-based screening – differentiates us from a lot of the other entities in this space.
(Mark) Other researchers tend to focus on single pathways or mechanisms (inflammation, cell senescence, free radicals, epigenetics) as a way to fight aging diseases. We thought that that was sort of bringing a bias into it that could really kind of put the brakes on their potential. We're agnostic as to mechanism – we don't care what the mechanism is, as long as it extends lifespan and preserves or maintains healthspan. That's the beauty of Gerostate’s platform and that's what we built out over the last few years.
What has been the most significant hurdle you've faced so far?
(Simon) The dream of extending health span and extending human longevity with function is as old as the hills, so people are naturally skeptical about what we’re doing. Pharmacologically, it's hard, but we're getting there. The research community has done this in mouse models, the record is now a 30% increase in lifespan, with a reduction in most age-related pathologies.
So we’ve also had to work past that snake oil stigma, and the “over promise/under deliver” theme which plagues science, to get people to see this as a real scientific contingency rather than the stuff of sci-fi.
How do you feel you've grown personally in building this company?
(Simon) We’ve become very milestone-oriented & very scrappy. Especially in biotech, experiments are so expensive that there’s a good deal of financial pressure of churning out data and results under a much more constrained timescale than in academia. Luckily, we’ve been running labs for a long time now and know how to be very capital efficient. We’re also very lucky in that we’re able to use the Buck Institute’s equipment at fair market value.
Academia is much more relaxed in that way. There’s time to sit back and say “Oh, well, I'll just think for a bit about this little problem which I'm working on” without any critical deadline or timescale. But the startup mentality is diametrically different – everything is time sensitive so we’ve become much more goal-oriented.
How did it feel to get into YC & what was the biggest takeaway from your time in the program?
(Simon) Doing our 10 minute pitch was stressful, the partners were all wearing poker faces and asking point-blank questions. We had no idea how we’d done afterwards. But, later that day, I got a phone call from one of the YC guys who basically said you're in, here's a million dollars – which is far more than the norm. They realized that it was a hard technical, capital-intensive challenge and we're immensely grateful to them for giving us the momentum to kick the whole thing off. Without that, we would have still been doing the esoteric stuff in the corner of a lab somewhere.
(Mark) We’re academics. So, during the program, we literally learned how to run a company. Their network is also incredible. I mean, even right before I came to this meeting, I was reading a community discussion on bookface. We continuously benefit from that network in our day-to-day operations.
What has been your biggest misstep and what did you learn from that moment?
(Simon) I think the expectation that what we were doing was obvious to us, and so would be obvious to others. As the pitch man, it’s been difficult to articulate just how impactful even a modest success would be; a therapeutic breakthrough by Gerostate would be transformational at the global level.
The odds of us succeeding on that magnitude are low. But the odds of Elon Musk getting to Mars are also low! But people are captured by the audacity of the goal, the imagination and the literal moonshot nature of the thing. We are a moonshot company, no doubt about that, but if we're successful, you're talking about a 3, 4, $5T market, annually. Even a moderate success, even something that slightly improves an outcome for dementia or Alzheimer's, would be a massive commercial success.
What’s a song or album that’s gotten you through 2020?
(Simon) I'm a big soundtrack guy. I listened many times to the soundtrack from The Martian this past year. Oh, also many times to the soundtrack of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
(Mark) I listened to a lot of Cage the Elephant, in particular their album Tell Me I’m Pretty. It's a collaboration with a guy from The Black Keys and it is really good.