Reach out to anybody and everybody. Send that email, pick up the phone. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
Eric Marcotulli, chief executive officer of Elysium Health, graduated from Harvard Business School and joined Sequoia Capital as its youngest partner. At Sequoia, Marcotulli led growth investing in mobile technologies. During his time in Silicon Valley, he realized that despite the significant, positive impact of new technologies on our understanding of health and disease, there remained a lack of innovation in the consumer-facing portion of the healthcare market beyond wearables and basic mobile apps. With a keen interest in health management, he wanted to create a company focused on developing compelling compounds found in nature that support health.
Where did the idea for Elysium Health come from?
When I was at Harvard Business School we read a case study on a biotech company based in Cambridge called Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. Sirtris was focused on developing drugs that treat diseases of aging by activating a family of proteins called sirtuins (hence the name). Remember the health craze around resveratrol, the compound found in wine grapes that some people thought was responsible for the so-called “French paradox” (why French people allegedly eat high fat diets but are relatively healthy)? Well, the compounds that Sirtris was studying were based on resveratrol, which showed very promising results in animal studies, but ended up not translating well to humans because the molecule isn’t very bioavailable.
The company was bought by GlaxoSmithKline in 2008 for $720 million, and they continue to study compounds that activate sirtuins, but the case study had a big impact on me. After reading it I did a great deal of research and discovered that scientists are very interested in sirtuins today because of their role in maintaining health and homeostasis in cells, and in fact one of the leading researchers on sirtuins, Leonard Guarente, is the co-founder of Elysium. He made one of the most important discoveries related to sirtuins, which is that they only function in the presence of the coenzyme NAD+. (This relates to our product, Basis, which increases NAD+ levels in humans.) He also demonstrated in his lab at MIT, the Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research, that activating sirtuins in lower organisms extends their life.
Working with Lenny was significant because he’s such a well-respected scientist. The other big thing I discovered in my research was that the science of why we age has matured in recent years, and scientists generally agree that aging is the biggest risk factor for the chronic disease that more than 50 percent of American suffer from. We founded Elysium because we believe that everyone should benefit directly from this compelling research in aging. Our niche is to create a new category in health by translating advances in the science of aging into effective products that are easily incorporated into everyday life. These are not drugs; they’re supplements. But they’re based on science and studied in clinical trials. We believe this is a fundamentally new approach to healthcare
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I start my day with a glass of water and two capsules of Basis. Then I review my inbox and schedule calls and meetings for the afternoon. We have active research partnerships with Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford, and we’re running several clinical trials, so I spend a lot of my time working with partners on current projects and laying the groundwork for future projects.
I go to the gym in the evening. I was on the wrestling team in college, so staying fit is an important priority for me.
How do you bring ideas to life?
In my experience, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Reach out to anybody and everybody. We knew we had a great idea for Elysium, but having Lenny (Dr. Guarente) as a co-founder makes all the difference because he’s one of the smartest people when it comes to the molecular and genetic mechanisms of aging.
Our scientific advisory board is another great example. We’re fortunate to be advised by a network of more than 20 world-renowned researchers and clinicians, including seven Nobel Prize-winning scientists, who help guide the direction of our company. Their expertise in areas like clinical trial design and new product discovery is invaluable.
And the same applies to our entire company, from our supply chain to the design of our packaging.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Longevity research and the science of aging are no longer moonshot ideas. The discoveries about the mechanisms of aging are actually being applied in a variety of ways. I’ll give you a few examples that just scratch the surface. Calorie restriction has been known to extend life in mice and other organisms for decades, but this year the first human data on how a specific regimen called the “fasting mimicking diet” might improve human health was published. In the case of Elysium, our understanding that NAD+, a molecule in all living cells that’s absolutely essential to life, declines with age has led to the idea that you can potentially improve your health by increasing NAD+ levels. We offer Basis, which does exactly that. And finally, several companies are working on therapeutics that target specific aspects of aging — one example is Unity Biotechnology, which works on cellular senescence — but these will take several years for approval because they are drugs.
One thing that’s important to understand is that the scientific community has moved away from the idea that longevity research equals anti-aging or reversing aging (although some very credible scientists believe aging can be slowed or reversed). We now talk about healthspan, which refers to the healthy, functional, disease-free years of your life. Improving healthspan is the goal.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I answer emails when they come in as opposed to letting them sit in my inbox. This is especially important with my team because I want to empower them to make decisions and succeed, not be a bottleneck.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Everything takes longer than you think, even when you account for the fact that everything takes longer. This “law” comes from Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which I highly recommend.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Reach out to anybody and everybody. Send that email, pick up the phone. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. If you have a great idea and you’re committed to putting in the work to bring it to life, the best people will want to work with you. Some won’t, of course, but you’ll be surprised.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Hire amazing talent. I look for outsized individual contributors, where one person can do more than five people. This is especially important in the early stages of a startup, where a person you hired for one job will probably need to do things that are outside of her area of expertise. Amazing staff will learn fast and acquire the skills they need.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
The truth is that we initially failed to raise our very first round of funding in California. We realized we needed to be where the research was happening. My co-founder, Dan Alminana, and I moved to NYC, focused on our scientific partners and the research upon which Basis is predicated — and then we raised the money. It happened right when we stopped focusing on it and directed our attention to the science.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
A family dinner on vacation with my parents. It’s important to make time for your family. This is true for everyone, but when you spend a lot of time at work talking about aging and healthspan, it becomes very clear how important it is to cherish every moment you have with your family — and anyone close to you, for that matter.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I use email almost exclusively. I love managing my to do list through my inbox. We use other tech at the office, and I communicate with my team through Slack throughout the day, but for me it’s not that complicated: email.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I’m glad I already suggested Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which is a good one for your community to read. But I think your next book should be Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a brilliant psychologist and behavioral economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The book, to paraphrase heavily, is about two modes of thinking, one that’s quick, instinctive and emotional, and the other that’s slower, more deliberative, and logical. It’ll change everything you know about how we make decisions.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Daniel Kahneman is on this list for the reasons I mentioned. Elon Musk is, too. I’m a total space nerd — I have the Voyager Golden Record and Scott Kelly’s new book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery — right here on my desk. In addition to being brilliant, Musk is incredibly ambitious in bringing changes to industries with enormous barriers to entry like space travel and automobiles. I admire that and think there are similar challenges in the field(s) of health.
Another is Eric Kandel, who was the earliest member of our scientific advisory board. He is one of the most important neuroscientists and intellectuals of the last century. He was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research on how memories are stored in the brain. Beyond his incredible accomplishments as a scientist, he’s also written books about the intersection of art and brain science.
And finally my co-founder and Elysium chief scientist, Leonard Guarente, who made a decision to study aging at risk to his career. At the time he chose to dedicate his lab to aging it wasn’t mainstream science. There was comparative biology — a young mouse versus an old mouse — but not discoveries about the genes that regulate aging. Ultimately it paid off. He and his lab members started by studying aging in yeast, they found a gene that controlled aging (a sirtuin), and now it’s well known that sirtuins play a critical role in health in lower organisms, in mammals, and in humans. Lenny’s lab at MIT continues to study aging, with an emphasis on how the human brain ages.
- Hire amazing talent.
- Reach out to anybody and everybody.
- Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.