Saudi Arabia is bringing its gusher of investment capital to Boston, setting up shop in the nation’s biotechnology hub to bankroll scientists seeking ways to extend human life.
A new funding organization, created by decree by Saudi King Salman and chaired by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, opened its North American headquarters this week on the 22nd floor of 200 Clarendon, formerly known as the John Hancock Tower. The group, called the Hevolution Foundation, is promising to invest as much as $1 billion a year in academic research and biotech startups that promote longevity by slowing down aging and combating age-related diseases.
Hevolution — an amalgam of health and evolution — was launched four years ago, establishing its global headquarters in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Its chief executive, Dr. Mehmood Khan said the foundation chose Boston as its base for North America operations because of the density of life sciences companies and biology research centers.
“Boston is a center of excellence,” said Khan. “This was a very strategic move to where the activity is concentrated.”
The source of funding, however, may present a dilemma for scientists and entrepreneurs. Critics have accused the kingdom of using cash generated by oil sales to whitewash human rights abuses, including the 2018 killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi government denied involvement.
Dr. Stuart Parkinson, executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, based in the United Kingdom, said he worries that scientists who want only to fund their research could be “providing cover for a [government] that’s engaged in highly unethical behavior.”
Saudi Arabia has funneled billions of dollars into everything from real estate to high-tech companies to professional golf as it looks to diversify its oil-dependent economy and improve its reputation. Hevolution executives take pains to note that while funded by the royal family, the foundation is a nonprofit and not an arm of the Saudi government.
A key question for scientists, said ethics specialist Jeff Moriarty, is whether the funders will allow independent and unbiased research.
“The Saudi royal family certainly has ideas about how society should be run, and they want to burnish their image,” said Moriarty, executive director of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University in Waltham. “But it’s easy to criticize if you have enough money to fund your research. You might wish you had different [funding] sources, but that’s not the world in which we live.”
So far, there are few signs researchers have qualms about accepting Saudi funds. Hevolution has already distributed more than 20 grants to academic researchers working in the fields of aging biology and geroscience, the study of the drivers of age-related diseases, including recipients at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Boston University School of Medicine.
“I think it’s just phenomenal,” Dr. Danny Roh, assistant professor at BU’s medical school, who received an early Hevolution grant to study how senescent cells, the “zombie” cells that stop multiplying but don’t die off, affect wound healing in aging patients. “It’s really exciting that there’s this new influx of interest and financial support.”
Dr. Samuel Beck, another BU assistant medical professor, is using big data in anti-aging drug discovery. Beck’s lab already had funding from BU and the National Institute on Aging, but Hevolution’s three-year grant of $375,000 has allowed the lab to hire a post doc and accelerate its ability to deploy computers to search for disease targets.
Beck said he is not familiar with the Saudi human rights controversy. He said he hopes his research will yield “benefits that will be shared by all human beings.”
Khan, who is based in Riyadh, declined to directly address the Saudi human rights record. But he noted that about 390 scientists and researchers in the United States are competing for 20 to 30 grants in Hevolution’s most recent funding round.
“That speaks for itself,” he said. “We’re seeing great receptivity in the field. We’re finding ourselves oversubscribed, usually 10 to one.”
Khan, an American citizen born in Pakistan and raised in Britain, was hired by the Saudi royal family to oversee the global foundation in 2020. He is an endocrinologist who worked at the Mayo Clinic and later for Japanese drug giant Takeda. Most recently, he led Boston-based Life Biosciences, cofounded by Harvard scientist David Sinclair to develop therapies that can slow human aging.
Life Biosciences, a holding company, has launched a half-dozen biotechs, most based in Massachusetts, to develop therapies to treat age-related conditions such as dementia and infertility. They are part of a small cluster of startups in the Boston area focusing on longevity, vying with a larger cluster in California.
Khan said Hevolution is seeking to fill funding gaps for research into extending human life. Less than 10 percent of the budget of the National Institutes of Health underwrites longevity research.
The foundation’s mission, however, reaches beyond helping people to live longer, Khan said. The goal is to help them enjoy a “healthy lifespan” without debilitating disease.
“We’re not just interested in purely extending longevity,” he said. “We want to compress the years of illness and disease.”
While the foundation has begun awarding research grants, it won’t announce its first investments in biotech startups until later this year. Khan said Hevolution has already identified more than 150 companies as potential investment candidates.
Hevolution’s investment arm for North America, also based in Boston, will be led by chief investment officer Bill Greene, another industry veteran. It will be the lead investor in some startups and co-invest in others, Khan said. He said profits from the investments will be plowed back into other research funding.
At a reception Wednesday night in the foundation’s new Boston office, with sweeping views of the city, several dozen employees, advisers, board members, and guests milled about nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and sipping nonalcoholic mocktails.
Khan said Hevolution is still ramping up, and couldn’t estimate when it will reach its target of spending $1 billion a year. That will depend, in part, he said, on the field of aging biology attracting enough interest and generating enough promising research programs to fund.
“The scientific field right now is not able to absorb all of that” funding, he said. “Our goal is to build that scientific capacity in the field.”
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.