Homeschooled: Laura Deming, Scientist & Founder of The Longevity Fund

Laura Deming is a biologist and founder of The Longevity Fund, the first VC firm to focus on companies that work on extending healthy human lifespan and addressing age-related diseases through biotechnology. She grew her roots in biology as a homeschooling student in New Zealand, and moved to the US to work in a UCSF biology lab at age 12. By age 14, she was a student at MIT, then became a Thiel Fellow. We asked Laura to share how her education prepared her to lead and build today.

Laura Deming. Illustration by Annie Oh.

What are you working on and thinking about this week?

How long do you have? I normally have a few key focuses at work (right now, immune aging from a bunch of different angles), and then a billion other small ideas that float in and out of my cranium. My most persistent focus is something that I can’t talk about yet because it would sound slightly insane, but right now, I’m pursuing these more coherent questions:  

  1. Is there a flywheel effect with biological tools? Will biological discoveries become the tools for next-generation discovery? How might we predict progress in biology?
  2. Why does it normally take about a year for the best proto-entrepreneurs I know to reach full conviction about starting a company? What are ways to accelerate that process?
  3. Is there an immortal cell that doesn’t replicate anywhere on earth? (We presumably wouldn’t see it if there was.)

I’m really obsessed with Cell Biology by the Numbers. I think quantitative intuitive models of biology are the best thing ever. Also this Nima Arkani-Hamed video is literally the best thing ever.

What was your education like?

I grew up homeschooled in NZ with a hilariously small amount of context for what the real world was like. In retrospect, it was totally ideal. I had two strong memes deeply implanted in my cranium early in life - I love science and it’s my job to do something really important and I can do it, too. I have no clue who I’d be without those memes, and I’m also not sure that the latter was actually true! My dad just always told me that I was exceptional and could work out a way whatever I wanted to do in the world and I believed him. I still do, in a funny way, despite about a decade of evidence to the contrary and realizing how actually hard it is to make drugs for complex diseases. It’s extraordinarily sad how many otherwise brilliant kids might not do things they could because they don’t have a similarly supportive environment — I’m really excited for things like Daniel Gross’s Pioneer for that reason.

Laura as a child, drawing DNA on the pavement outside of her house in chalk, an anecdote from a talk that she gave for TedxYouth@Tallinn. Illustration by Annie Oh.

I feel like it was a lot of puzzle solving and doing obvious stuff. And then starting to think more independently in college, and to try to figure out what problems I wanted to work on. But I had this moment around that time where a friend and I were driving to a camping site, and I was trying to explain a math concept to him, and he abruptly turned to me and said “I’m feeling very frustrated right now because you honestly have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.”

It’s really hard to explain without context how actually useful that comment was. As he explained it, I was just parroting off the definition of something. The real way to understand things is to be able to see, explore, feel the concept from a bunch of different angles, and to be able to rigorously prove things about it. I still struggle with the latter, but having an intuition for what real, deep understanding of a concept looks like has been a great guidepost. For example, I realized I didn’t understand what entropy was, and now kind of do, after a summer of being in near tears with frustration about it.

Where and when did your mission to improve longevity originate?

It’s funny, because I get asked that question a lot. I think of it like this: if you were to watch a million people jump off a bridge every day and just suffer in a really extreme way throughout all of it, How would we respond as a society? An overwhelming number of people would be inspired to take action and help. When you think of it in acute, immediate terms, viscerally shocking and moving. But with longevity and other deeply existential problems, the horror of what’s happening has been tragically normalized.

I really just wanted to work on the biggest problem possible. At first I thought that was cancer, but after a variety of experiences, aging just seemed like a bigger deal.

I have a much less antagonistic relationship with death now than I did when I was a kid. I understand more that we are a species, that there’s something beyond us as individuals — but despite that, I absolutely cannot square the idea of sobbing when a relative gets cancer and then being totally fine with another debilitating degenerative disease also caused by aging that we somehow have collectively decided is natural and normal.

How has the way you learned as a kid shaped the way you learn and make decisions at the helm of The Longevity Fund?

I’ve had to un-learn a bunch of stuff I learned when I first came to the professional world. As a kid, I was deeply joyous about science. I loved it directly and with a passion, and I absolutely believed I was going to grow up to be like Michael Faraday (his story about getting an apprenticeship with Humphrey Davy is amazing, by the way). When I entered the world of finance with my fund, I was totally scared to seem like I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt like it was really important to hide who I was to seem more ‘adult’. Now, in retrospect, I think that was both understandable and a bit of a mistake.

One thing I learned as a kid that I keep on forgetting so easily is how not to care about what anyone else thinks (with a few close exceptions). It’s funny - even in Silicon Valley, hypothetically the vanguard of independent thought, I feel like that’s extremely hard to do. In part, because what other people think constrains your access to resources. So it’s an interesting balance.

I’ve heard you talk about your dad telling you at 12 years old to make sure that everyone was a little bit happier because you were in the lab each day. What role did your parents play in your life and education?

Oh, man. My Dad had so much good advice as a kid — I really felt like I got a cheat code to life early on. It was like being Ben Franklin’s daughter or something. I’m probably exaggerating, but it felt that way.

One thing he told me was ‘action comes before motivation’ - that’s always been an incredibly powerful thing in my life. He taught me a lot about putting your head down and working hard and not believing anyone who tells you you are great, having that come mostly from your own self-judgment. Being extremely humble around people who know more, finding any way on earth to help them.

My dad also taught me a lot about humor and how ridiculous the world was in so many different ways. Almost too much - I think I take things more seriously now. But it’s kind of the Mark Twain effect - the world and everyone in it is a hilarious, self-sabotaging, foolhardy place that is also one of the most deeply joyous and interesting things going on in the galaxy. He used to say you can either look at what’s going on in the world and cry or laugh. Why not pick the latter?

My mom taught me about kindness and empathy and wanting to help others. She’s probably the most giving person I know.

When I first met Cynthia Kenyon, who literally changed my and many other lives – she’s amazing – I had this very extreme mental conceit that I would beg her to scrub floors in her lab and somehow work my way up on the academic ladder. I was 12. She very kindly offered for me to just work in her lab as a normal intern, which was so kind in retrospect. It changed my life, to be taken seriously like that at a young age.

I love how you describe the way The Longevity Fund removes limits on who can participate in biomedical entrepreneurship. How can we translate some of what you’ve learned about diverse participation in science to the way that kids learn?

I think there’s something about being absolutely delighted when you meet someone who doesn’t know something. That feeling is the best thing in the world because you get to be the first person to tell them about some incredibly cool natural phenomenon. That’s pretty great. I still remember being a preteen in Cynthia’s lab when Marc McCormick described how SVMs (Support Vector Machines) worked for handwriting recognition in the postal system. He was just so good at explaining things, and that really stuck. Encourage people to own ideas, be skeptical of them, and learn to delight in poking holes in things.

When thinking about diverse participation, it’s funny – before I came to the Valley, I had absolutely no idea that being a girl was in any way a handicap. To me, it was an obvious advantage – in a sea of people who all looked the same way, I’d stick out like a sore thumb! If I could make it, wouldn’t I obviously be an amazing role model? Being in the valley for a while, it kind of wore off, and the more articles I read about how much it sucked to be a girl in science, the more I believed it. I’m not sure what to think about all of that, really.

What’s something you believe that most people don’t?

I can give you a few!

  1. That we will see the first drug to measurably affect human healthspan tested in the next decade, and that this is one of the biggest deals in how we thinking about disease. It’s not just hype and rhetoric.
  2. That original thinkers are so darn much more rare to find than I thought they’d be growing up.

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