Diet, exercise and plastic surgery will get you so far in maintaining health or youth but a Chapel Hill entrepreneur recently out of the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator is offering up another way to live longer—storing (and eventually reusing) your own stem cells.
It involves a simple outpatient procedure where stem cells are removed from the bone marrow in the back side of the hip bone. The cells are processed at Forever Labs in Michigan and then sent to an FDA-approved facility in Massachusetts, where they are frozen in liquid nitrogen.
Eventually, the team envisions doctors around the world will reintroduce those cells into the body to either treat illness or maintain health during the aging process.
“Your stem cells will never be as young as they are right now,” CEO and co-founder Steve Clausnitzer told a small group of people gathered at Smashing Boxes in May during Moogfest.
His big mission: Reverse aging and help people live longer, healthier lives.
Clausnitzer’s firm is part of a larger movement and industry known as longevity. It includes a mix of biotechnology, genomics, consumer product, data, hardware and software companies, many of which are snagging funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firms. They’re a group of people who aren’t willing to accept aging as an unavoidable part of life.
“There is an increasing number of people realising that the concept of anti-ageing medicine that actually works is going to be the biggest industry that ever existed by some huge margin and that it just might be foreseeable,” Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer of the Sens Research Foundation told The Guardian in 2015.
Michigan roots, Triangle branches
Clausnitzer is a Michigan native who moved to Chapel Hill in 2012 for his wife’s medical residency at Duke University. The former business development manager for American Express was working on another startup at the time, a sort of Reddit alternative called Hubski.
But his co-founder Mark Katakowski, a PhD in medical physics, was also busy conducting stem cell research within the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. In 2015, they had the idea to launch a stem cell storage service to be ready to capitalize on the outcome of Katakowski’s work as well as hundreds of clinical trials underway involving “stem cell rejuvenation”.
Katatowski recently spoke at Google (video below) and explained it as twofold—a process of injecting a person’s younger stem cells into diseased areas of the body as treatment for a variety of illnesses and eventually, reintroducing those cells into the body over time in order to maintain health and prevent aging.
He, Clausnitzer and Chief Science Officer Benjamin Buller were the first to have the procedure—their 40-year-old stem cells are in storage in Franklin, Mass.
Forever Labs has since built and trained a network of 30 plastic surgeons, orthopedic and sports medicine doctors in eight U.S. states through word of mouth and events. In less than two years, they’ve performed the procedure for more than 140 people at a cost of $2,500 plus $250 annually for storage. Forever Labs ships stem cells anywhere in the world for $300.
Y Combinator benefits: funds, mentors, publicity
Y Combinator wasn’t in the plans for the company—it raised $750,000 early in 2017 from angel investors and turns a profit on each procedure. But it was hard to turn down an investment when Clausnitzer got an email from YC president Sam Altman. Turns out, some YC alumni had stored stem cells using the service and shared the details with Altman.
While Forever Labs had to give up 6 percent of equity in return for the initial $120,000 investment, Clausnitzer says the accelerator’s hype is real.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done, period,” he says.
Over three months in Silicon Valley, Clausnitzer says he had access to “amazing” coaches like Geoff Ralston, founder of Yahoo Mail predecessor Rocketmail. Ralston motivated him each week by asking, “what is standing between you and your KPI and if that’s the same thing next week, you should hang your head in shame.”
The attention from Y Combinator helped earn Forever Labs some solid press. TechCrunch named it one of the top seven companies in the cohort of 110, and London’s The Sunday Times featured the founders on its podcast.
While fundraising is underway, the focus now is on adding new surgeons to the network and spreading the word to their patients and other consumers.
Dr. Ben Wood of Raleigh-based Davis & Pyle Plastic Surgery considers himself an early adopter. His practice tries to stay ahead of trends in healthcare, so when he met Clausnitzer through a mutual friend, he immediately saw the fit with a client base often using cosmetic surgery to look and feel their best.
“Our patients are interested in getting the most out of every day,” he says, adding that this is “a step beyond preventative medicine.”
Wood had the procedure six months ago and is now storing his own stem cells through Forever Labs—it took 15 minutes and was routine with minimal discomfort, he says.
The biggest challenge for his practice is figuring out the best way to educate patients on stem cell storage and introduce Forever Labs as an option. The practice held an event for patients several months ago. Wood has performed 10 procedures so far, making his practice one of the more active, Clausnitzer says.
Traction is building, Clausnitzer told me last week in Chapel Hill, where three of the five-person team work. They’ve signed on the largest plastic surgery group in the country, based in New York City. Locally, he’s got two team physicians for the Carolina Hurricanes. Some employers are considering offering it as an employee benefit.
Two local educational events are happening this week, one of which is sold out. National marketing could happen as funds come in.
Clausnitzer says the most challenging part of growing the company and spending so much time in the Bay Area is being away from his two young children. But he also offers some perspective: “I’m starting to solve aging. They will understand someday.”