Monday, December 16, 2013

2013 Financing of the Year Nominee: Calico

It's time for the IN VIVO Blog's Sixth Annual Deal of the Year! competition. This year we're once again presenting awards in three categories to highlight the most interesting and creative deal making solutions of the year. The categories are: M&A of the Year, Alliance of the Year, and Financing of the Year. We'll supply the nominations (about a half dozen in each category throughout over the next week or so) and you, the voting public, will decide the winners (by voting early and often, commencing once we've announced all the nominees). Strap yourselves in, it's The Race for the Roger™.

Across the pharma industry, companies are developing symptomatic treatments, therapies that attack the root causes of diseases, prophylactic vaccines, and occasionally, holy-grail cures that eliminate diseases from patients entirely. But Calico, a new company launched in September by Google founder Larry Page, aims for an even bigger kahuna: it’s trying to “solve death.”

That’s the way Time put it when it introduced Calico in a splashy cover story. And while some prefer the softer terms “anti-aging” and “life extension” to describe Calico’s aims, make no mistake: It’s the latest well-funded effort to discover treatments that slow down, arrest or reverse the gradual process of atrophy that makes us all older and more vulnerable to disease. If its ambitions seem outsized, its creator has company in Silicon Valley, where audacious goals occasionally take form as hundred-billion-dollar companies just a few years after they’re dreamt up.

Google employs futurist/inventor Ray Kurzweil, who has written a couple of books about life extension. PayPal founder and Founders Fund partner Peter Thiel has voiced a desire to be a supercentenarian, and has contributed funds to related projects. And a group including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan, 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki (Page’s soon-to-be-ex-wife) and Russian billionaire/Valley investor Yuri Milner has launched the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which awards grants to scientists “curing intractable diseases and extending human life.”

If that just seems like a bunch of techies trying to become more like the robots they like to create, well, Calico has brought in one seasoned biotech veteran to steer the ship toward realistic outcomes. Longtime Genentech CEO Art Levinson – still Genentech’s chairman, a Roche director, and Apple’s chairman – is Calico’s chief executive. In a Google+ post at the time of the company’s launch, Levinson wrote that Page and Google Ventures partner Bill Maris approached him about a project “that would take the long-term view on aging and illness”; Page’s own post described the project as “a long-term bet” that might tackle decreased mobility, loss of mental acuity, and life-threatening diseases that afflict the elderly. (Page said Google itself had invested in the project; the Google Ventures web site doesn’t list Calico as a portfolio company. The venture arm has its own data-driven ambitions, as we discussed in this Start-Up profile.)

Calico – short for “California Life Company” – hasn’t revealed much more since its September launch, but it hired a few more industry vets and academic figures during the fall. Former Roche EVP of global product development and chief medical officer Hal Barron will lead Calico’s R&D. Ex-Princeton prof David Botstein, who ran the university’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and won one of those Breakthrough Prizes, signed on as Calico’s chief scientific officer. Both are Genentech veterans. Also, former Genentech Senior Oncology Fellow Bob Cohen was named a Calico Fellow, while UCSF professor and researcher Cynthia Kenyon signed on as a Calico scientific advisor.

It wouldn’t kill you to consider Calico for this year’s Roger in the financing category, now, would it? (Though it remains to be seen if Calico can repay the favor with a little life extension.)

Thanks to Flickr user UlfBodin for the photo of a sun-kissed kitty, reproduced here under Creative Commons license.

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