- Solving the mystery of sleep
In the latest episode of Flux podcast, I sit down with Eric Marcotulli the co-founder of Elysium, a life sciences company developing consumer-facing health products based on aging research. The company’s first product is Basis, a supplement that combines compounds designed to increase NAD levels and activate sirtuins, boosting cellular health and longevity.
In this conversation we discuss why precursor companies failed, including Cambridge-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which was bought for $720 milllion in 2008. Eric explains how Elysium is a platform-based company that will sell a host of products and diagnostics, why he believes direct to consumer is the best market strategy, and what the current user base looks like. The company just announced a new clinical trial this week. Eric gets into the importance of bringing academic rigor and peer review to the supplement category, how he plans to build consumer trust and ultimately pull it into the mainstream. He shares why he believes in open source research, how cellular senescence is a particular area of interest right now, what his personal health routine is and how he thinks about the singularity.
An excerpt of our conversation is published below. Full transcript on Medium.
Eric Marcotulli—Bottling the Fountain of Youth
ALG: Welcome everyone to the latest episode of Flux. I’m excited to have Eric Marcotulli here today. He is the co-founder and CEO of Elysium Health a company that is rethinking healthcare whose first product is a science based supplement that promotes cellular health. Welcome.
EM: Thank you.
ALG: Appreciate it. I’ve been excited about your company for a long time. It’s nice to meet in person.
ALG: As a New York based VC it’s also great to meet New York based companies, especially science focused companies. I’d love to start by hearing the beginnings of Elysium. You started the company in 2014. I talked to one of your investors last summer, he said to ask you the story of how you met your co-founder at Equinox — is that true?
EM: So there’s two co-founders and they both have their own stories. I’ll start with my scientific co-founder, Leonard Guarente. Leonard’s run the biology of aging Lab at MIT for the last 25 to 30 years. I didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur. It was a confluence of events.
If you go back to 2011, 2012 I was in business school and in one of my classes we were studying a company that in the field of aging is well known but outside is not. It’s called Sirtris Pharmaceuticals and it was a Boston based biotech company going back to the mid 2000s. What’s interesting about this company is they were studying processes of aging and they identified one in particular. It was a class of genes that we now affectionately refer to as longevity genes. They’re called sirtuins. What they identified was that these genes are found in every living thing and that the activity level of these genes decreases through the normal course of aging. And when they reactivated these genes they saw amazing benefits, regardless of which model or organism you were looking at. They would live to the human equivalent of 120 years old. They don’t get cancer. They don’t gain weight.
ALG: You mean the mice?
EM: That’s right. Life is pretty good at this point if you’re a mouse. It was a monumental discovery in terms of aging research and it got the researchers nominated for the Nobel Prize. One of the researchers involved in that series of discoveries in the late 90s early 2000s went off to Harvard to open his own lab. And being more risk-seeking he was screening for natural molecules that could potentially activate these genes. The hypothesis there, which has since carried over to Elysium, is that aging itself isn’t a disease. It’s about the interconnected degradation or failure of our own biological processes and metabolisms. There is a prevailing hypothesis we are seeing develop that natural compounds will be the most effective interventions. That was the approach taken there, and the researcher’s name is David Sinclair. He screened natural product libraries for potential hits that could activate these genes.
And he found one, a derivative of red wine called resveratrol. Some people have heard of this. If you look back at the ‘04 ‘05 timeframe there was a massive spike in red wine sales due to all the media coverage around it. So they started a company, Sirtris. So they make you the protagonist in this case study, and you have to make a decision as the management of the company. What was interesting was that you have a natural product and that aging isn’t a disease. To try and create a traditional pharmaceutical company and go after diseases you’d be trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You’d likely have to modify the molecule, you would have to start looking at disease models. On the other hand, you could build a direct to consumer company, where you don’t have to modify the molecule, and aging isn’t a disease so you don’t have to go through a laborious long-term and huge cost effort from an approval standpoint. We debated the merits of both of these business models. I was firmly in the camp of the consumer facing effort, because I was reading this research and saying, how could anybody sitting in this room not want this for themselves or their parents or their friends?
EM: It ends up not mattering which position you take. [In 2008] GlaxoSmithKline stepped in and bought the company for almost three quarters of a billion in cash, before they read any human data. I was fascinated at this point with the research. If you had played word association with me going into that class and you said “anti-aging” and “longevity” I would have just rattled off “late-night infomercials” and “snake oil.”
ALG: So that class awakened you to the industry and got you interested?
EM: That’s right. I didn’t know this was something you could study. Aging — most people think it’s an unstoppable ambiguous force. But it’s not. It’s something that we can now quantify and measure and potentially intervene. That was new to me, the fact that people at MIT and Harvard were studying this and making progress. So I left that fascinated. Shortly thereafter I reached out directly to the the the MIT professor who was the original discoverer of these genes, the sirtuins. I reached out to the scientific co-founder at Harvard. The question I had was, whatever happened to this? Because now it’s almost a decade since the acquisition. There had been little news on it. If you fast forward to today the MIT professor, the one where they made the original discoveries of the longevity genes, is now the co-founder of Elysium.