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Inside Saudi Arabia’s $20 billion bet on longevity biotechnology

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From 0 to 1 – Saudi Arabia’s Technology Dream

The author visited Saudi Arabia (KSA) in July, 2022 and it broke all stereotypes. There is no religious police on the streets, high-tech construction all around, women with PhDs in top leadership roles, and Uber drivers listening to HRH MBS speeches promoting tolerance, innovation, and a vision of a technology-augmented clean energy future. Recently, CNN did a great job describing the transformation of Saudi Arabia. Of course, this rapid transformation from 0 to 1 was not easy for MBS and was met with substantial resistance from inside and outside the country and required gargantuan efforts. But it is happening and now he has even more ambitious plans that, if properly executed, will benefit everyone on the planet. He decided to focus on extending healthy longevity in KSA.

Longevity as a National Priority

Increasing productive longevity may be the most altruistic cause anyone can pursue in order to generate the most number of Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY), a central metric in healthcare economics, during their lifetime. Imagine that an average surgeon performs around 400 surgeries per year. Working for 30 years, he or she generates on average two quality-adjusted life years per patient. That is 24 thousand QALYs. Now, imagine that you prove that a safe drug in use today, for example, Rapamycin, adds a few years of life if taken once a week. Adjusted for quality of life, this results in just one additional year of quality life. If everyone starts taking this drug, you can generate roughly 8 billion QALYs, not even accounting for future generations. Now imagine that you discover an absolutely new drug that can be developed for a specific disease but also works to combat ageing and adds 10 years of life to everyone’s quality productive life – that is 80 Billion QALY. It is estimated that there are around 1.1 million specialist surgeons in the world today. A dual-purpose therapeutic for treating ageing and disease could generate three times more quality life than all the surgeons in the world during their entire careers.

But the development of just one drug using traditional methods takes over a decade, costs over 2 billion dollars, and the process fails over 90% of the time. Most productive pharmaceutical companies produce one or even fewer approved drugs per year out of their own R&D efforts. And only a few of these drugs may serve a dual purpose – extend longevity when used as a prophylactic and address a disease or loss of function. Examples that come to mind include Metformin, Aspirin, Rapamycin, and just a handful of others. The era of pharmaceuticals intelligently designed to target ageing and disease simultaneously is still in its infancy with less than a handful of examples of novel targets and/or molecules discovered using ageing research.

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Discovering a blockbuster therapeutic that could work in ageing and disease from scratch is a high-stakes effort with massive financial returns and benefits to society when successful. It requires a substantial amount of funding, expert leadership, and a multi-year commitment. Visionary leaders with a long-term outlook recognize this opportunity and there are several large-scale efforts globally dedicated to extending human longevity.

Life expectancy in Saudi Arabia was 75.37 years in 2021 over a year lower than in the US. Recent advances in longevity biotechnology suggest that it may be possible to rapidly close this gap and substantially increase life expectancy. The beauty of biomedical research is that a drug found in Saudi Arabia or founded using Saudi capital would quickly propagate globally and benefit everyone on the planet. Therefore, recent announcements and policy changes by the progressive HRH Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud where he intends to prioritize longevity research and sustainable energy as the two main research priorities may be comparable to the unexpected bets on electronics in Japan and Korea in the 1970s.

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Saudi Push into Longevity – Hevolution

One of the most credible management consultants in the pharmaceutical industry is Dr. Michael Ringel of Boston Consulting Group. He is well known in longevity circles and helped to grow Life Biosciences, a longevity company founded by the most famous scientist in the longevity business, David Sinclair and Tristan Edwards, Australian biotechnology entrepreneur. In March 2019, it was announced that Dr. Mehmood Khan joined Life Biosciences as CEO.

In early 2019, BCG reached out to me and we conducted a couple of “longevity landscaping” calls for an unnamed client in the Middle East. I thought that this initiative was driven by the secretive AI company in the UAE called Group42 which also had expressed some ambitions in longevity in the past. They were exploring several for-profit and non-profit business models for a national longevity initiative. Having participated in similar initiatives for several countries, I readily agreed. The group was quietly doing the work in 2020 and 2021. When the word “Hevolution” started circulating in the community, just like with many other government initiatives, industry veterans did not expect anything serious to come out of it. But now I was certain that Dr. Michael Ringel is helping shape up the strategy and when BCG is involved, the project is usually very serious.

In the Summer of 2021, rumours started circulating that Dr. Khan was being brought in to lead the longevity initiative in Saudi Arabia. In September of that year, Dr. Khan started presenting at conferences with his new title. The first references to Hevolution Foundation appeared in tweets from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) and Women Business Collaborative (WBC).

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Mehmood Khan, M.D. – Chief Executive Officer

When searching for Dr. Khan’s biography on Google, the top results that came up were from congress.gov and house.gov websites of the United States. Prior to joining Hevolution and Life Biosciences, Dr. Khan was PepsiCo’s Vice Chairman, Chief Scientific Officer, and Head of Global R&D. Prior to PepsiCo he was the president of Takeda’s global R&D Center and, prior to that, staff endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. He is an M.D. with substantial global R&D experience. This is as credible as you can get in longevity biotechnology. I was surprised to learn that he is also a certified pilot.

Felipe Sierra, Ph.D. – Chief Science Officer
In Spring 2022, it became apparent that the former director of the Division of Aging Biology (DAB) of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Dr. Felipe Sierra, had joined Hevolution. I’ve known Dr. Sierra for over 12 years and applauded this decision, as did many other industry veterans. He came out as the Chief Science Officer (CSO) of Hevolution in March 2022 at his annual Euro Geroscience conference in Toulouse where I gave a talk and even provided a small sponsorship.

A native of Chile, he did his PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Florida and postdoctoral work at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. After working for Nestlé he became interested in ageing and went back to the US to take academic positions. In 2002, he joined the Division of Aging Biology at the NIA and quickly became the director of the DAB. He is often credited for coining the term “geroscience”. In 2020, he retired from the NIA and joined INSPIRE, the “translational research platform in geroscience to improve healthy ageing”.

In summary, Dr. Sierra knows how to allocate massive amounts of capital via non-profit competitive grants.

HRH Princess Haya Bint Khaled Al Saud, Ph.D. – Vice President of Impact and Insight

As you can judge from the family name, HRH Princess Haya comes from one of the world’s most influential royal families. The new policies introduced by HRH Crown Prince MBS, the role of women in Saudi Arabia was elevated to the standards of many Western countries. However, there are still many common misconceptions, and Dr. Haya defies all of them. After completing her bachelor’s in clinical nutrition at King Saud University, she got her Master’s degree in Genetics and Toxicology from McGill University in Canada and a PhD degree in Genomics of Common Diseases from Imperial College London. After completing her graduate work in genetics, Dr. Haya returned to Saudi Arabia to work on some of the most impactful projects in the country. She served as Director of the Saudi National Center for Genomics Technology, and as Director of the Saudi National Pre-Marital Screening Program. As a scientist at the King Faisal Specialized Hospital and Research Center, she carried out a range of research projects focusing on population genetics, and published multiple research papers in peer-reviewed journals.

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After a brief meeting with the team, it became apparent that Hevolution is a product of several years of hard work and they do have a very capable team. It is also clear that this is not an imported third-party idea. The mastermind of this initiative is HRH Crowne Prince MBS himself and the organization is reporting directly to him. Dr. Mehmood Khan is in full control and Dr. Haya is a strong co-pilot ensuring compliance, coherence with the vision, and smooth operation.

Inside Hevolution

When longevity biotech wants to come out of stealth with much fanfare, it goes to Antonio Regalado from MIT Technology Review. He covered Calico, Altos Labs, and now – Hevolution. In June 2022, Antonio broke the story, sending shockwaves across the longevity biotechnology industry. This same month, I visited Riyadh on an unrelated business trip and saw firsthand that it is a truly innovative and high-tech place positioned for growth.

For many years, people have wondered if and when Saudi Arabia – a country backed by wealth, a strong network of scientists, and visionary leadership – would venture into the growing field of longevity. It wasn’t until the Hevolution Foundation came into the public eye that it became clear that the Kingdom is making grand strides in the field of human longevity. Hevolution Foundation is a non-profit organization that receives funding from the Saudi Arabian government to the tune of up to $1 billion per year to fund the science of increasing healthy human lifespan.

The Hevolution Foundation’s mission was clearly described in an article posted by Dr. Khan. The article states that Hevolution Foundation is a “pioneering new organization” with a key focus on significantly improving something that affects every human on the planet: ageing. “Our mission is to drive efforts to extend healthy human lifespan, or healthspan, and to better understand the processes of ageing, because the simple truth is: we all age, but we do not all age equally,” the article reads. The Foundation has an annual budget of up to $1 billion to accelerate science and bring therapies to market.

Although it is still unclear how this much money will be spent, one can make a few educated guesses. One possibility is that the Foundation will fund the $100 million XPrize for age reversal technology, as underlined in a recent MIT Technology Review article. If this were to happen, XPrize would benefit greatly from the funding in longevity.

And Hevolution leadership is clearly very familiar with longevity biotechnology and drugs that may serve a dual purpose. Life Biosciences, where Dr. Khan served as a CEO, is one of the longevity biotechnology companies developing a pipeline of such drugs. Dr. Khan is also a founding member of the Longevity Biotechnology Association.

The rest of the Board of Trustees largely includes members of the Saudi royal family and officials.

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Forbes

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