This startup was after immortality―then COVID killed it
Bryan Brandenburg wants to increase our lifespan.
“We recently filed for a patent on an anti-aging device that is basically a human gyroscope,” he tells me.
“It’s based on NASA technology―because when astronauts go into space they start seeing muscular atrophy, so they developed some technologies, vibrational things to restore muscles. We have taken that to the next level, combining it with a device to turn back your biological clock.”
Brandenburg’s idea is based on the twin paradox―the idea that if a set of twins are born on Earth, but one immediately gets in a spaceship and travels away at light speed, the traveling twin will return to find the remaining twin much much older. (If you’ve seen the movie Interstellar, it’s based on these same principles of time dilation.)
Brandenburg believes he can recreate this backward time travel… without leaving the planet. His invention is reminiscent of the Vitruvian Man. The user stands with arms outstretched, suspended in a set of orbs. The orbs rotate, turning the body upside-down, around, and in every possible direction. The motion exercises the body passively. The vibration decompresses the spine naturally.
“This human gyroscope has vibrational components, it has rotational components, it rotates you in three dimensions. So if the body is on a vibrational platform, and it’s vibrating at 30 frames, 30 cycles per second. There’s an action-reaction going on in the muscles that they’re firing off at 30 times a second. This device can take somebody who is completely paralyzed and restore muscle. It will exercise for them passively.”
Brandenburg imagines a future where humans attend the gyroscope regularly, the same way they might attend a cryotherapy center for their muscles or a meditation center for their minds. By spending ten minutes, or even hours per day in the gyroscope, that time is effectively eliminated from the body.
“We developed a range of technologies to use your body as a time machine and elevate the average energy level of your 99 percent empty space atomic structure,” Brandenburg says. “And when you do that, time slows down.”
The quest to cure death
The Fountain of Youth is nothing new to those who have been chasing after it. But once the sciences proved the human lifespan could be extended with advances in vaccinations and antibiotics, the tech set became determined to do so too.
In a lot of ways, they were perfectly primed for the quest having founded large companies, exited with large fortunes, and amassed notoriety. Their Maslowian needs effectively checked off, only one elusive aspiration remained: immortality―death being the last challenge their riches had yet to efface.
Among the templars fighting for that grail are the ghosts of entrepreneur Phil Salin and tech developer Hal Finney whose bodies remain cryogenically frozen in the hope that future scientists will be able to revive and cure them of their mortality. Paypal founders Luke Nosek and Peter Thiel intend to join that icy end having established themselves as Alcor Life Extension customers in the event of their impending demise.
Theil is especially eccentric in his quest, having invested $7 million in life-extension nonprofit Methuselah Foundation which aims to “make 90 the new 50 by 2030.” The organization funds longevity research and―speaking to the kind of person who contributes to the organization―accepts donations in the form of six different cryptocurrencies as well as appreciated stock.
Calico Labs has a similar mission to “better understand the biology that controls aging and lifespan,” and to use that knowledge to “develop interventions that enable people to live longer and healthier lives.” After spinning off from Google’s X in 2013, Calico took on significant R&D, burning through more than $750 million in cash and even partnering (and then unpartnering, incidentally) with DNA giant Ancestry on undisclosed longevity research.
If our bodies can’t live forever, Y Combinator startup Nectome hopes at least our memories can. In 2018, the company made waves when it pitched its “100 percent fatal” brain freezing technology, gaining federal grants to study brain preservation. “The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide,” its co-founder Robert McIntyre then told MIT Technology Review. “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”
None of this is to say that it is all destined to work. That if we just throw enough money and resources at death, we might be able to keep ourselves from drawing closer to it. That, many believe, should be left to the realm of mythology. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance―perhaps the oldest story in existence―centers on the mythological King Gilgamesh’s quest to discover eternal life. “What you seek you shall never find,” he comes to learn in the story. “For when the Gods made man, they kept immortality to themselves.”
Many experts believe the human lifespan can’t extend much farther than it already has. Even if we could cure all cancers completely, one University of Chicago study concluded, our lifespan would only increase by three years. That’s because cancer is an affect of aging, and if aging does not cause cancer, it will cause some other affect. There simply is no evolutionary reason for our bodies to continue functioning properly once our reproductive years have passed.
Even if we could cure every ailment of the body, the brain wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. Our best guess currently, is that our brains write memories by creating engrams―small changes in that brain that―as long as they don’t overlap with one another―are fine. But what if we run out of storage space? What if we have software errors that eventually cause our memories to break down, irrespective of the health of our brain?
Then COVID killed them
Midway through my research, my sources dried up. Methuselah, which used to post new content weekly, published their last article on March 11th, 2020. Then Brandenburg’s company Zenerchi fell offline with Brandenburg himself deleting his LinkedIn account and ceasing to answer my emails.
When I reached out to Carlos Justiniano, Brandenburg’s Zenerchi co-founder who jumped ship in July of 2020, he told me the company struggled to find financing during COVID “despite having great partnerships,” and eventually their runway ran out. “I moved into an advisory role to help extend runway,” he told me, “eventually that dried up as well.”
The trouble with longevity research is that it requires the right investor. By nature, these companies spend decades, if not centuries, in research and development, and once there is finally some tangible result, it is unlikely to earn a profit for its investors in the long-term, much less the short term. For this reason, many biomedical companies rely on angel investors as their primary means of funding.
Zenerchi hoped to find a way around this hurdle, developing an interim product that might generate a profit and thereby fund their more futuristic visions. When I spoke with Brandenburg in July of 2020, that product was a visual simulator that allowed users to interface with the human body in 3D―and even, in later releases, to allow medical professionals to explore medical outcomes based on inflicted traumas and medications.
Brandenburg called it “a physiology operating system,” or “Windows for the body.” He even showed me a demo of the product in its pre-alpha iteration, and I have to admit it was pretty stunning. The sort of thing you might see hologramed out in science fiction movies, with the human body projected in 3D for medical professionals to examine and monitor. There was even a “Da Vinci mode,” which rendered the entire thing in parchment tones.
At the time of our meeting, Brandenburg’s plan was to start with an exhibition for students. He told me the state of Utah appropriated $300,000 to the University of Utah’s Center for Medical Innovation (CMI) for a “human experience exhibit” at the Leonardo, and that it was going to be the next Body Worlds. Students would walk around the museum with their iPhone or iPad and see 3D holograms of the human body pop up all around them―similar to how AR Pokémons appear in Pokémon Go.
Central to this plan was Dinesh Patel, PhD and former founder of TheraTech―which went public and sold to Watson Pharmaceuticals in 1998―and now a prolific angel investor in the biotech space. As of July of 2020, Patel sat on the boards of Zenerchi, CMI, and the Leonardo. I reached out to Patel for his comment on the company, but he declined to participate. Brandon Fugal, another prolific angel investor and board member of Zenerchi, also declined involvement in the story.
So what happened? Despite Zenerchi’s involvement with two of our state’s most forward-thinking investors, the company shuttered, it’s future lost, and it’s webpage all that remains of its quest for immortality. Perhaps it was as the barmaid by the sea once told the king once he arrived on her stoop in the Epic of Gilgamesh:
“Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let Days be full of joy. Love the child who holds your hand. Let your wife delight in your embrace. For these alone are the concerns of man.”