Longevity science is a thriving sector revolutionizing drug discovery, cancer detection, and more. More people want to live longer and better lives, and thousands of scientists around the world are working round the clock to bring treatments out of the lab and into the real world. However, it sometimes takes billions of dollars to bring just one drug to the market and the risks are very high. Hence, one of their main obstacles is usually funding.
Much of the money going into longevity research comes from venture capital firms (VCs). VCs look for companies with a proven track record and a clear path to profitability. That means early-stage research doesn’t get funded unless it has already gained market traction. Even then, typical VCs are hesitant to invest because they don’t know if those companies will be profitable.
That’s where grant funding comes in. Nonprofits and other grant providers can take risks on new ideas in service of the greater good. In scientific research, nonprofits support early-stage projects that have yet to prove their value but have great potential. It allows scientists to explore new ideas without worrying about an instant return, freeing them to pursue genuinely transformative ideas rather than quick and easy money-makers.
One grant provider is the Longevity Science Foundation (LSF), a global nonprofit headquartered in Miami’s bustling tech hub. In its first year of operations, the LSF has announced two funding calls on cutting-edge longevity topics, convened industry discussions and grown a community passionate about living longer and healthier lives.
The woman behind the LSF curtains is Lisa E. Ireland, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. An experienced nonprofit executive with more than 25 years of experience leading organizations in education, healthcare, human services and science, Lisa is expected to grow LSF to the next level by attracting substantial funding into the foundation and supporting the longevity science projects with the maximum potential longevity dividend globally. While Lisa joined LSF in the second half of 2022 (Longevity.Technology first reported on the news), she has made a remarkable impact in her first months.
There is a growing need for the longevity-focused non-profits. Many people worldwide are starting to realize that investments in fundamental and translational aging research yield the maximum number of Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) and provide more economic and social good than targeting individual diseases. There are several other sizable foundations focused on longevity, including the Alliance for Aging Research (1986), Methuselah Foundation (2003), The Biogerontology Research Foundation (2008), SENS Foundation (2009), Hevolution Foundation (2019) and many others. The oldest and the largest one, is likely the American Federation for Aging Research (1981), which funded over $193 million according to the website. But the world clearly needs new approaches to research funding, since after all these years of research and billions of dollars spent on aging research every year, we are not yet getting younger.
I sat down with Lisa to ask some questions about her work in nonprofits, the mission of the Longevity Science Foundation, and how we can make longevity more accessible.
Lisa, it is great to speak to you and have this interview next to our work together on the LSF Visionary Board. I know you’ve worked in nonprofits for several years. Can you tell us what led you to nonprofits and, eventually, the longevity space?
Likewise, Alex, I look forward to working together and advancing the Foundation with your support! It’s my pleasure to speak with you about the LSF, and I am honoured to be featured alongside some of the field’s most inspiring women.
I studied communications and political science back in the day, but soon after graduating and launching my professional career, I realised I wanted to help communities and causes through philanthropy. I’m passionate about building organisations that encourage individuals to give back and help people access essential resources. My first nonprofit roles were at community development organisations in Orleans County, New York. There, I focused on fundraising, donor relations, nonprofit administration, and budgeting. The work was especially meaningful as the organisations were part of the community I called home, and I am proud of the difference we made there.
After several years in community development, I moved to more STEM-aligned nonprofits like the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Rochester Museum & Science Center. These positions introduced me to science and research foundations, and it quickly became apparent that this was where my heart was! I met many fantastic people through these institutions, which led me to explore opportunities in research funding.
When I heard about the Longevity Science Foundation from its recruiter, my decision pursue the position was a no-brainer. It is the perfect time, too. The longevity field has moved past its association with “superfoods” and “quick-fix” ageing cures, and its solutions are entering the mainstream. The LSF’s work is three-fold here: raising awareness about longevity science, funding breakthrough research, and ensuring the field is accessible.
By accessible, I mean available to everyone, without high costs or long waiting times. Life-extending medicines and treatments need to reach all of us, not just wealthy individuals. Everyone deserves to have more healthy years with their loved ones.
This idea of accessible longevity resonates in my life. I have relatives who have passed from ageing-related diseases, and I’m well aware that I’m getting older myself. What especially inspires me is my children and building a better and longer future for them. The field is ripe for transformation, and I want to use my skills to shape how we understand ageing.
How has your experience in the nonprofit world shaped your approach to leading the LSF?
In October, the LSF expanded its presence in the United States with its certification as a 501(c)(3). Complicated tax codes aside, this status means the LSF operates as many other United States nonprofits. Because the LSF is new, we’ve been working hard to lay a solid operational foundation, so we can focus on maximising our impact through fundraising, grants and partnerships. When it comes down to it, a lot of nonprofit management is telling a one-of-a-kind story and making a difference. This is my goal in leading the LSF.
Something that sets the LSF apart, besides its newness, is the nature of our sector. As you know very well, Alex, discoveries are made in the anti-ageing space all the time. I see it as the Foundation’s responsibility to raise awareness about what longevity means for individuals, and this is the basis of many donor inquiries. It’s not enough to simply fund projects. It’s not enough to make sure these projects are accessible. We will steer the societal conversation on the life-changing implications of longevity research and convene the leading voices in the space to do so.
The LSF announced funding calls this past year on ageing clocks and psychedelics. Can you tell us what led to these areas being selected?
Definitely! I’m enthusiastic about these initial areas. Ageing clocks were a great first LSF pick as they answer one of the most common questions in longevity science: how can we measure our biological age? We’re seeing early versions of how this will work in wearables. Almost everyone I know owns some sort of smartwatch or fitness-tracking device. The goal of ageing clock research is to get feedback on biological age as easily as checking your step count. Functional ageing clocks will also give scientists a way to measure the efficacy of their treatments, including medicines and lifestyle interventions like diet and exercise. I know you have worked on this with Deep Longevity, Alex.
Psychedelics also caught our team’s attention as being on the brink of widespread human use. So many people associate substances like LSD, MDMA and psilocybin with their recreational applications. In reality, scientists are using them to treat difficult mental health conditions. The FDA has approved a ketamine spray for treatment-resistant depression, and there are studies on psilocybin for PTSD in veterans. I think the role of mental health in longevity goes overlooked by many. The LSF is making it a priority in our work, both in funding and raising awareness. More than 50% of people in the U.S. will receive a mental health diagnosis in their lifetimes. Our accessibility focus couldn’t be more critical here.
We’ve received more than 100 submissions from our ageing clock and open funding calls. I can’t give too much away, but our first funded projects are groundbreaking. Their proposals outlined life-changing technologies and applications.
You mentioned you were new to the longevity field. What has your experience joining the LSF and entering a new sector shown you?
The longevity community has welcomed me with open arms. Since day one, every person I’ve spoken to has been willing to share their knowledge and help me understand current longevity research. In fact, I think my newness has helped shape the strategy of the Foundation. I’ve been building the plane as we fly it, so to speak. Learning about the different components of longevity helped me understand how to best communicate these to the public.
I’m also impressed by the longevity ecosystem. The Youth Longevity Association, for example, has blown me away with their talent and drive for learning. The Healthy Longevity Medicine Society is doing vital work to convene longevity physicians and set standards.
Everyone I meet is dedicated to not only advancing their own research but also positively shaping the industry for others. I think it’s a real community superpower to be so open and willing to educate.
How is the Foundation different from other similar organisations? How are you encouraging donations to the LSF?
It’s helpful to go back to the Foundation’s inception. Our Founding Board members came from investment and venture capital backgrounds, where they recognised how grant funding supports early-stage projects to reach pre-seed or seed status. There were other funding organisations in the space that were (and are!) doing great work, but the founders wanted to do something different and create a more transparent, accessibility-focused and donor-centric nonprofit.
As I’ve mentioned, we prioritise accessibility in our funded projects. People like Jeff Bezos and Larry Page have made seven-figure donations to longevity research institutions, but their support does not guarantee everyone will have access to the research results. Ageing is a problem we all face. Longevity treatments should be just as widespread. Our Visionary Board evaluates projects for their scientific soundness and their potential to enter our smartphones, pharmacies and hospitals in just five years.
Accessibility is also integrated into our funding process; every donor matters to us. When someone donates to the LSF, they receive voting rights in proportion to their contribution. They can then use their voting rights to support project proposals vetted by our Visionary Board. All donors have a say in the Foundation’s grant allocation, giving them a voice in the future of accessible longevity science. Not to mention, this system is powered by blockchain, meaning there’s an irrefutable record of the funding process.
We emphasise this transparency to potential donors, and people are enthusiastic about receiving voting rights and seeing their donations in action. With many nonprofits, you send off a gift and might receive a yearly update on the nonprofit’s accomplishments. Instead, we bring donors to the centre of our work and empower them to be part of the future of longevity. Because we focus on accessibility, they know the projects they back will be visible in their lives. It’s a model with exciting implications for the nonprofit world.
We also offer our donors unique perks based on their contribution level. These include newsletters, invitations to LSF events, previews of upcoming research and more. We see our donors as being the central component of the LSF community and are always happy to welcome new members.
Where do you see the future of the Longevity Science Foundation and the longevity sector as a whole?
The LSF has a bright future ahead! 2022 saw our expansion in the United States and new global headquarters in Miami. This year, we are actioning the “global” in global nonprofit. We’re internationalising our work to reach more people and collaborate with academic institutions, industry events and other funding bodies. I’m excited to bring the LSF on the road and have in-person interactions with our donors and board members in locations like Portugal, the UK and across the US.
In growing the Foundation through fundraising, we will also expand our impact. We plan to announce new funding calls and announce the grant recipients from our ageing clocks and psychedelics calls. Awarding this funding will be a landmark accomplishment, and we are thrilled to share the first LSF projects with the world.
Similarly, I think the longevity sector will see some significant breakthroughs within the next 1-2 years. I know Insilico, under your leadership, is leading the AI drug discovery field. Treatments for devastating age-related diseases are about to reach our physicians and hospitals. In the nutrition space, there’s a lot of new research about supplements and diet in the pipeline. Human adoption is the next big step.
It’s our mission to ensure every human can access these breakthroughs. Lifestyle choices like diet and exercise, for example, can be adopted by almost anyone. Educating healthcare providers, especially nutritionists and dietitians, will help more people learn about new options. I mentioned ageing clocks before–an app or wearable device available to the masses would be powerful. Other areas, especially clinical discoveries like medications or genomic approaches, will take longer. In the meantime, we are raising awareness with the public about what the future holds so they feel empowered to ask their doctors in a few years.
What advice would you give to other women looking to enter longevity?
I am grateful for the longevity community’s warm welcome, and I’ve always seen our sector as equal-opportunity and supportive of anyone with a genuine interest. Maintaining this feeling as the sector grows is part of our mission–an accessible community is just as important as accessible treatments.
I know it can be daunting to approach something completely new, but there are fantastic resources out there to guide you. I recommend starting with longevity-focused media like Longevity.Technology and Lifespan.io for the latest discoveries. From there, you can dive into scientific journals. Your recent work and book, Alex, are great reads, and the head of the LSF Visionary Board, Dr Evelyne Y Bischof, has also published some sector-leading research.
There’s plenty of room for more passionate individuals in longevity, especially in funding. Nonprofits and venture capital firms always look for bright minds and a desire to make a difference. You can connect with some of the top longevity researchers or our team via the LSF website to start!
All scientific fields need funding to gain traction, and longevity is no different. Whether you are a researcher, investor or simply someone interested in learning more, you are welcome in the LSF community.
You can meet the Longevity Science Foundation at the 10th Aging Research for Drug Discovery forum, the world’s largest non-profit event in the biopharmaceutical industry organized by the University of Copenhagen.
Full disclosure, even though there is no financial conflict of interest, I do volunteer on the LSF’s Visionary Board, where I vet research proposals for scientific soundness.