Originally from the Netherlands, Jan van Deursen is an internationally recognized American scientist who made a name for himself with his discovery of one of the key causes for aging and age-related diseases. Now, he is developing new and innovative treatments for some of those diseases. After working on groundbreaking technologies for stem cell editing during his Ph.D. studies in the Netherlands, he moved to the United States in 1994, where his work later earned him a research position at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. While conducting cancer research at Mayo Clinic, Jan van Deursen and members of his lab made a breakthrough discovery in the field of aging that changed the course of his career.
As human beings and many other organisms age, ‘senescent cells’ accumulate in many tissues and organs. For a long time these senescent, or in lay terms, “zombie” cells were believed to be harmless, but the transformative discovery by Jan van Deursen and members of his lab was that eliminating these senescent cells in mice extends lifespan and attenuates the development of a wide variety of diseases associated with aging. In 2011, Jan van Deursen co-founded Unity Biotechnology with the goal of translating these findings into effective treatments for age-related diseases in humans, such as atherosclerosis, heart or kidney failure, osteoarthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and macular degeneration.
Unity Biotechnology went public in 2018 and is now traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Jan van Deursen has since remained entrepreneurially active and passionate about translating exciting new discoveries in the field of cancer and aging research into medicines that address pressing unmet clinical needs of the elderly.
Where did the idea for Unity Biotechnology come from?
The basic idea for Unity Biotechnology came from my lab’s discovery that ‘zombie cells’ are drivers of aging and age-related diseases in mice. The central goal was to develop drugs that could selectively kill these cells off in humans. It’s exciting to see that there are drugs now that can do that and they’re being applied in clinical trials for certain diseases related to aging. It’s also rewarding to see that there are more than a dozen other companies pursuing the same idea. If the therapeutic concept works as well in humans as in preclinical models for diseases of aging, it could be of tremendous benefit to the quality of life of the elderly.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day involves getting up fairly early to go to work. At the moment, I’m mostly working from home, which means I am going to my home office. I typically work straight through until dinner time, and then I’ll slow down. Working out is a key aspect of my routine. It is a great way to decompress, take care of my own health, and balance out the more cerebral aspects of my day. I spend time with my wife, go do my workouts, and yet… I don’t think I ever switch my brain completely off from thinking about science. I once asked my wife if I would qualify as a workaholic, and without hesitation she said yes.
How do you bring ideas to life?
So, the first step toward bringing an idea to life is to have a really great idea. I’ve noticed that ideas often come to me when I’m working out. My thoughts start to wander, and those wandering thoughts often lead to unexpected connections—things I hadn’t thought about, and opportunities that spring from them. It’s not the reason why I work out, but it certainly is a nice side benefit. The exact details on how to implement the idea will vary, depending on what the idea is. But no matter what path you choose for implementation, you can’t get started without the idea.
What’s one trend that excites you?
What excites me in general are examples where the pursuit of an innovative scientific idea was met with enormous resistance by funding agencies and peers in the field, but where the scientists involved found a way around these obstacles to go on to make breakthrough discoveries of tremendous potential relevance to human health. For example, the scientific community was able to use new RNA-based technology to develop COVID-19 vaccines to conquer the global pandemic in record time. It’s an extremely positive development, and it makes me proud to be a scientist.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
One habit that makes me more productive is to exercise regularly. This habit has not always been easy to maintain in a stressful job with half a dozen administrative responsibilities and many postdocs, students, and other lab members needing regular input and advice to keep projects moving forward.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would suggest to my younger self to try to develop a broader series of interests and passions. Even though I didn’t have any problems in my social life, my private life, or my married life, I still do think that the people around me feel that I have been overly focused on understanding diseases and helping to find cures. Perhaps I would tell my younger self to fight this urge and to try to become more well-rounded as a person and a mentor. And to be more open to the fact that there are multiple roads to success for me and others.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Most of the discoveries I’ve made that turned out to be meaningful and important were on topics that the field was not interested in at the time. For instance, the senescent cells that Unity Biotechnology and many other companies are now trying to develop therapies for were actually discovered in the 1960s. Our discovery of the importance of these cells became public about 50 years later. I often wonder why nobody followed up on this in the 1960s, and why we were the first to make that discovery. Maybe it’s because people tried decades ago, but couldn’t make progress and gave up. Perhaps the whole idea was considered nonsense and the field moved on to something else. Well, when my lab made an unexpected discovery that we thought could be linked to “zombie” cells, and spent years developing and testing the tools to prove the link, this allowed us to succeed in making an important discovery that vertically advanced our understanding of aging and disease.
That has happened multiple times throughout my career, where we work on something that isn’t considered trendy and where the prevailing consensus is that everything there is to know about a particular molecule or cell type has already been reported. That is, until we look through a different lens and find something new and important.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
As a basic scientist entering the field of biotechnology for the first time, I was completely naïve. I should have taken time for more formal training on the topic of entrepreneurship.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
What worked for me is to continue to strive for innovation, even as the company’s main strategic work plan has been set. It’s funny that aging, the topic of my research, is not just the process of getting older and having more discomfort and disease, but also causes people to be less open to change. I think it’s important to stay connected to new ways of doing things and not get stuck in ideas of “Oh, this is how we did it 20 years ago, and it was so much better.”
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
A common challenge I’ve had to overcome in business is that, in the development of pharmaceuticals, the rate of success for any given drug is relatively low. If you develop a drug and even if you start testing it in humans, the chance of getting it FDA approved is often less than 10%. So, what you have to get used to is that clinical trials are extremely expensive, and that they often fail. It can happen that everything you forecasted and prepared for worked in animal model systems, but it didn’t work in humans. The best way to overcome such a setback is to go back to the drawing board and rationally think through all the adjustments you need to make to maximize your rate of success the second time around.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
This may sound corny, but it actually pertains to me. I have very large feet, to the extent that it’s difficult to find the right size shoes. The most comfortable shoes for me are sneakers, but in the house, I couldn’t find slippers that were comfortable. So I decided to turn sneakers into slippers, basically by taking a blade and cutting off the back. I was able to create the perfect pair of slippers from old sneakers. And it worked so well that I’m left wondering why nobody else has done this. It’s the comfort of a good pair of sneakers, with the ease of use of slippers. Well, my kids took one look at my creation and they thought I was nuts!
But then, a few years later, I noticed that Nike and New Balance were marketing this exact same idea. Nicer, of course—they didn’t just cut the back off a pair of sneakers. But it’s the same idea. So, apparently, I’m not the only one that thinks there’s a market for this.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
That’s an easy and somewhat boring answer. I have spent it on a pair of water-resistant headphones. For years, I had problems with headsets because most of the in-ear headphones didn’t stay well in my ears. They fall out when I work out. So, I bought a really good pair, and it only cost $40. And they’re weather-resistant, so when I sweat while I’m working out, they won’t break. Being able to listen to music and podcasts while working out and without having to worry about the headphones is fantastic.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Gmail is pretty good. It’s a bit of a boring answer as well, but it’s true. Gmail gets the job done.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I just finished reading Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s about the Sackler family and the development of Oxycodone, which is a very strong painkiller and opioid to which many people get addicted. It’s about how this family and their company Purdue Pharma, over the years, became so addicted to their success that they downplayed the addictions that their pain medication caused and downplayed their role in the opioid crisis.
What is your favorite quote?
“It’s better to try and fail than to never have tried at all.”
- Don’t be afraid to follow threads that others have dismissed. Sometimes there’s more to learn, and sometimes it’s something big.
- Practice the things you’re not good at. If you hate doing something at your job, that’s a sure sign that you need to get better at it.
- Be constantly open to innovation. “This is how we’ve always done it” is no justification on its own.
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