Can Yuri Milner and Jeff Bezos End Death?

Yuri Milner
Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
January 25, 2022

For as long as I can remember, journalists and supposedly savvy observers have been reflexively dismissive, if not outright hostile, to Silicon Valley’s ongoing obsession with life-extension research. There is, after all, something seemingly contemptible—and a little bit funny—about billionaires wasting money on futile efforts to live forever. The very notion brings to mind the stories about Peter Thiel injecting himself with teenage blood (which he has denied), or Larry Ellison deadpanning that death just “never made any sense to me,” or Nick Bostrom and Ray Kurzweil signing up to have their bodies cryogenically frozen. 

That’s not a stereotype: tech leaders have provided much of the funding in the life-extension field, through both philanthropy and for-profit investing. At a time when real people are suffering from more devastating problems—malnutrition in the developing world, Black maternal mortality in the United States, not to mention the latest strands of COVID-19—it can feel out of touch, even unseemly, to see very wealthy people focusing on the one thing they themselves cannot escape… death.

But that kneejerk skepticism can also lead folks to ignore the potential benefits of aging research, which could have major implications for our understanding of associated diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Breakthroughs in the field would be an unalloyed good—for our families, for our loved ones, for the productivity of our economy (OK, maybe not for our entitlement budgets). Yes, there’s debate to be had about whether extending the lifespans of generally already-advantaged people—out of all the issues in human biology, never mind all the issues in the world—is society’s most pressing problem. Yet it’s equally silly, and inaccurate, to reduce the field to a bunch of Silicon Valley billionaires wanting to live forever.

All that context was on my mind with the much-anticipated public debut last week of Altos Labs, a new Silicon Valley biotechnology company dedicated to investigating (and reversing) aging. The most attention-grabbing headline, of course, was the budget: $3 billion, in what is said to be the largest biotech fundraising round ever. Some of the money comes from co-founder Yuri Milner, the Russian-Israeli entrepreneur who backed Facebook and is best known in philanthropy for using his billions to fund the Breakthrough Prize and its associated gala. The idea for Altos reportedly sprung from a series of conversations between Milner and biotech entrepreneur Rick Klausner, during their regular walks together through the Los Altos Hills. Intriguingly, another funder, reportedly and covertly, is Jeff Bezos, according to some great scoopage from MIT Technology Review.

Silicon Valley veterans will note that there is a long history of failures among previous anti-aging nonprofits and companies. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin spent $1.5 billion to set up Calico, a Google-owned life sciences facility that is widely viewed as a disappointment. Ellison spent hundreds of millions through his charitable foundation to fund anti-aging research, before suddenly pulling the plug one day in 2013. And more recently, the anti-aging nonprofit SENS Research Foundation has fallen into scandal, claiming the scalps of both co-founder Aubrey de Grey, a ponytailed elder in the field who was accused of sexual harassment, and C.E.O. Jim O’Neill, an ally of Peter Thiel who left amid the de Gray investigation. There’s no guarantee that yet another celebrity-backed, gloriously-funded effort to solve the mysteries of “cellular rejuvenation” will fare any differently, but its success is something we should all root for.

Silicon Valley Philanthropy’s “Strategic Reset”

We’re beginning to see some tangible signs of change at the once-embattled Silicon Valley Community Foundation. SVCF is Silicon Valley’s favorite charity, housing the donor-advised funds of celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar. But insiders will recall—trust me, SVCF staff certainly recall—that the $13 billion institution was absolutely battered by scandal over the late 2010s. An investigation into its workplace culture ultimately resulted in the ouster of SVCF’s omnipresent, Rasputin-like C.E.O., Emmett Carson (who, predictably, landed on his feet just fine in Hollywood). But over the last few years, his more clairvoyant successor, Nicole Taylor, has calmed the waters, bringing in an almost entirely new management team and board (although, as DAF critics would note, not a new business model).

One long-standing criticism of SVCF has been that, for an organization called the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the group didn’t seem to do a lot of, you know, foundationing in the community. Carson’s organization, with offices in New York and marquee projects in places like Ghana, became a poster child for rich techies who chased world-changing ideas while remaining callous to local issues. Taylor set out to change that, to “put the community back in community foundation,” as she liked to say, especially during the pandemic. And last week, we got some new data that, on the surface at least, suggests that Taylor has been successful: Last year, the group sent $777 million to Bay Area nonprofits, a record high. 

But when you dig into the numbers, I’d argue Taylor’s advocacy has yet to move the dial. In 2017—Carson’s last, scandal-free full year as C.E.O.—$436 million of the $1.3 billion in grants from donors, or 34 percent, went to local orgs. In 2021, the record-breaking year for Taylor, and her third at the helm, the $777 million in local grants amounted to… 34 percent of the $2.2 billion in total grantmaking. “We are seeing the results of that strategic refresh now, and we will keep working to emphasize local, effective giving with our donors,” a SVCF spokesperson told me. “There’s no two ways about it—$777 million going to Bay Area nonprofits is a phenomenal illustration of generosity.” Tech donors are donating more everywhere, yes, but they aren’t actively shifting their bets. Taylor is widely admired by local nonprofit and philanthropy types, including, if you couldn’t tell, by me. But her push for local donations is not showing in the data yet.

On “Davos Man”

I expected to devour Peter Goodman’s new book about a subject near and dear to Stratosphere readers: Davos, the metonym for the annual World Economic Forum gathering, and the Davos men who inhabit it. I did indeed speed through it, but for all the wrong reasons—on page 36, I remarked to my girlfriend that Goodman’s effort is largely a poor man’s Winners Take All. That book, from Anand Giridharadas, made a novel, counter-intuitive argument: that the good work of elite philanthropy is, in many cases, constructed to launder the reputations of its participants, lessen the odds of class warfare, and transmute economic power into social capital.

That’s not a thesis I necessarily always agree with, but there’s no denying that Anand’s book has become a highly-influential text, one that probably has shaped the nonprofit sector more than any other book in recent history. Goodman’s book, on the other hand, does not land as clever a twist, and therefore felt more simplistic. Unlike Anand’s, I don’t think the Goodman book convinces a fair-minded reader coming to this cold. His descriptions of this world felt at times like a caricature. Marc Benioff, bad. Jeff Bezos, bad. Davos, bad. We get it!

And Finally, Some Feedback…

I heard a lot of positive responses the other week to my deep-dive into the world of MacKenzie Scott, which included some new reporting on her aides-de-camp and donor-partners. I know some Puck subscribers were very glad to learn the names of who, precisely, they should contact if they’re looking to extract a check. Other readers found those revelations intrusive, and suggested that any critical coverage is nit-picking given Scott’s impressive record as a philanthropist. Fair enough. But the reality is that the staff who execute Scott’s vision, and move her money, are in charge of a massive philanthropic experiment. They hold incredible social power, even if they’re operating behind the scenes. I’d go so far as to argue that they’re effectively public figures, or at least that scrutinizing Scott’s process is more important than protecting the personnel steering her multi-billion dollar giving machine. Sorry!