Can anti-aging breakthroughs add 10 healthy years to the human life span? The CEO of OpenAI is paying to find out.
When a startup called Retro Biosciences eased out of stealth mode in mid-2022, it announced it had secured $180 million to bankroll an audacious mission: to add 10 years to the average human life span. It had set up its headquarters in a raw wargehouse space near San Francisco just the year before, bolting shipping containers to the concrete floor to quickly make lab space for the scientists who had been enticed to join the company.
Retro said that it would “prize speed” and “tighten feedback loops” as part of an “aggressive mission” to stall aging, or even reverse it. But it was vague about where its money had come from. At the time, it was a “mysterious startup,” according to press reports, “whose investors remain anonymous.”
Now MIT Technology Review can reveal that the entire sum was put up by Sam Altman, the 37-year-old startup guru and investor who is CEO of OpenAI.
Altman spends nearly all his time at OpenAI, an artificial-intelligence company whose chatbots and electronic art programs have been convulsing the tech sphere with their human-like capabilities.
But Altman’s money is a different matter. He says he’s emptied his bank account to fund two other very different but equally ambitious goals: limitless energy and extended life span.
One of those bets is on the fusion power startup Helion Energy, into which he’s poured more than $375 million, he told CNBC in 2021. The other is Retro, to which Altman cut checks totaling $180 million the same year.
“It’s a lot. I basically just took all my liquid net worth and put it into these two companies,” Altman says.
Altman’s investment in Retro hasn’t been previously reported. It is among the largest ever by an individual into a startup pursuing human longevity.
Altman has long been a prominent figure in the Silicon Valley scene, where he previously ran the startup incubator Y Combinator in San Francisco. But his profile has gone global with OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT, software that’s able to write poems and answer questions.
The AI breakthrough, according to Fortune, has turned the seven-year-old company into “an unlikely member of the club of tech superpowers.” Microsoft committed to investing $10 billion, and Altman, with 1.5 million Twitter followers, is consolidating a reputation as a heavy hitter whose creations seem certain to alter society in profound ways.
Altman does not appear on the Forbes billionaires list, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t extremely wealthy. His wide-ranging investments have included early stakes in companies like Stripe and Airbnb.
“I have been an early-stage tech investor in the greatest bull market in history,” he says.
Now, he is putting his capital to work at a level he calls an “order of magnitude” greater than he could during his Y Combinator days. And he has been concentrating those bets into a few areas of technology he thinks will have the biggest positive impact on human affairs: AI, energy, and anti-aging biotech.
Helion, based in Everett, Washington, aspires to tame atom smashing to create a “limitless source of clean energy.” Retro’s aim is to prolong human life by discovering how to rejuvenate our bodies, according to its CEO and cofounder, the entrepreneur Joe Betts-LaCroix.
All these companies, including OpenAI, are what Altman calls “hard” startups—those requiring large investments in order to make scientific advances and master difficult technology. It’s a shift for Altman, from backing fast-growth apps and their founders during the Web 2.0 boom to backing scientists pursuing long-term research.
Hard science companies are more expensive to fund, but Altman thinks their larger goals are more likely to attract talented engineers. He recently tweeted a quote from the Victorian-era architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
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The report was originally published on MIT Technology Review