When Laura Deming was a child, her elderly grandmother came to stay. She was in constant pain, her fingers so arthritic it took her forever just to pick up a teacup. “I just couldn’t figure out,” Deming says, “why she was unable to play tag with me.” Deming realised that her grandmother’s pain was age-related, and that there was no cure. “I think seeing some you love in pain, you really feel it. That was just a very inspiring moment for me, and it was something I felt was worth spending a lot of time on.”
A regular child might just accept there would be no more tag with grandma. But Deming was a prodigy. As an 11-year-old, growing up in Remuera, Auckland, that episode ignited in her a passion for the science of ageing. She started researching, and then, encouraged by her father, emailed a world-renowned scientist in the field. A reply came back within five minutes, and soon Deming was—as a 12-year-old—under the tutelage Cynthia Kenyon, a microbiologist and a world leader on the science of ageing, in her University of California lab. Working together, Kenyon and Deming genetically engineered worms to live ten times longer than they would have naturally.
Then, at 14, she was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dropping out two years later to take a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship and begin a new chapter as head of a venture capital firm. To date, the Longevity Fund, which exists to fund technologies that will “increase the human healthspan”, has raised $27 million.
Deming, who was home-schooled, says much of her precocious and meteoric rise was due to luck. “One of the things that was a huge luck factor for me was as a kid Dad loved science, so I was lucky in that he would encourage us to study things a lot faster, with a lot more passion, than others would have.”
Why would Kenyon even reply to an 11-year-old, let alone invite her into the lab? “I’d read enough of her work that I could mention some things so it was obvious that I wasn’t just reaching out to a thousand people but really cared about her work in particular.” If the reply had never come, she says, life may have turned out very differently. “Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up on a trajectory of working in a lab, going to college at a place I was so happy about. I think life could’ve been quite different, and all due to small chances of luck.”
The latest venture to employ Deming’s talents is Pioneer, an organisation aiming to find and accelerate those brilliant young minds that otherwise might never have the chance to contribute to humanity’s collective pool of knowledge—to basically take the luck that Deming says she benefitted from out of the equation. There is “so much talent out there” Deming says, and she wants to find it. “There are folks who are brilliant but who are constrained by luck basically to not have opportunities that they would have otherwise.”
A kind of online tournament, during which candidates from all over the globe vote on each other’s proposals, is the engine Deming hopes will identify the next batch of talent. Those selected will receive $5000 and a round trip to San Francisco to meet with investors and the Pioneer network. “There are so many kids out there that are probably in a similar position [to mine] but they just don’t have the same encouragement, so trying to help them get that extra step up to the next stage—it’d be huge.”
Growing up in New Zealand, Deming says she “never really felt that gender was something I even noticed”, and even when she entered the field “she has just had a really good experience”. But she acknowledges it is a barrier for some, and that there “definitely are issues people talk about”. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, to cite just one of them, fewer than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are female.
The potential of her latest enterprise for helping find the young women that might help redress that imbalance is just one of the things that excites her about Pioneer. “[What if] there was someone in the world who because she didn’t have anybody to support her she thought she wasn’t worth it or that she wasn’t somebody who could go do amazing things. I think one of the things that is so exciting about Pioneer is that we can go and find that girl.”