It looks like longevity is in it for the long run in Switzerland. Financiers are serious about funding the science of longer and healthier lives. The Swiss “Longevity Valley” dream also has political backing.This content was published on March 13, 2021 - 09:00
“Longevity will be one of the largest, if not the largest, investment opportunities in the decades to come,” says Tobias Reichmuth, co-founder of the CHF50 million Maximon company building enterprise that launched in Switzerland this week. He’s so confident that he and other founders are stumping up CHF6 million of their own funds to start it off.
Maximon is targeting innovative projects that focus on increasing lifespans and reducing the negative effects of ageing. Company builders act as investment funds, start-up incubators, accelerators and mentors all rolled into one. Maximon will leverage the recently created Longevity Investors Conference to bring investors to Switzerland.
This is not the only longevity enterprise in Switzerland. The Hong-Kong based Deep Knowledge Ventures has set up the Longevity Capital investment fund in Geneva while a London-based fintech, Longevity Bank, is seeking a license to operate here.
Part of Crypto Valley’s (the growing blockchain and digital assets industry) success can be traced to backing from the Swiss finance and economics ministries. Parliamentarian Andri Silberschmidt, from the traditionally business-friendly Radical party, is now lobbying both ministries on behalf of the nascent longevity sector.
He’s poised to formally ask the Swiss government to analyse the country’s prospects as a global hub in an interpellation – an official parliamentary question that requires a response from the federal authorities.
He will ask the government to assess the case for national agencies and universities to incorporate longevity research, for policy or legislative changes and to weigh up the potential benefits for science and the economy. Silberschmidt makes a case for longevity to be included in the federal research budget for 2025-2028.
“Switzerland is losing its global competitiveness, the economy needs a new impulse,” he said. “There is a real opportunity, but we need to be among the first movers. We need to start planning now; to focus scientific investment, get universities talking to each other and the private sector and get medical regulators on board. Politics can also play a leading role.”
Silberschmidt also wants to generate debate about the ethical issues surrounding longevity. How comfortable are we with science interfering with nature? How far to we want to go with controversial subjects such a genetic manipulation? And how do we ensure that longevity is available to everyone and not just the wealthy? “The more brains we have talking about these issues, the better the solutions,” he says.
But is science really on the verge of longevity breakthroughs as the cheerleaders claim? What can realistically be achieved by throwing money into this field? I asked Alessandro Blasimme of the Health Ethics and Policy Lab of the federal technology institute ETH Zurich.
“Claims that people can live 200 years are science fiction at this moment in time,” he said. “According to many there is an upper limit to human life spans. Any biological system undergoes wear and tear. At some point the body simply runs out of the metabolic fuel it needs for cells to regenerate and its capacity to cope with accumulated DNA damage. But science is telling us that something can slow down the ageing process, and live longer, healthier lives”
Science and public health are currently focused on coaxing younger people into healthier lifestyles. The idea is that healthy young adults will turn into sprightly pensioners, living longer and in better condition. “Research is not concentrated on rejuvenation, or turning back the clock,” says Blasimme.
There are some pharmacological innovations that could help this process. Senolytic drugs help clear out ageing cells while genoprotectors contain molecules that mimic the effects of a work-out or fasting in the body. This might be the closest science has got to realistically defeating the natural process of ageing. “It’s difficult to walk the narrow line between robust legitimate science and the hype of those who want to sell magic pills,” says Blasimme.
It appears that longevity investors should be careful about how they spend their money.
Blasimme is in favour of a Swiss Longevity Valley. The country has many of the right attributes: a strong economy, financial and pharmacology sectors, world class universities and a stable political climate. Most importantly, “if it attracts investors interested in translating robust science into innovative drugs and approaches then it will probably be the place.”