The CEO of the SENS Research Foundation left his job and seat on the organization’s board in July amid an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against the anti-aging nonprofit’s high-profile co-founder, Aubrey de Grey, STAT has learned. The departure of chief executive Jim O’Neill is, in part, what prompted two female entrepreneurs to go public this week with their charges, out of fear the foundation’s investigation would be compromised, they told STAT in interviews.
On Tuesday, Laura Deming, the founder of Longevity Fund, and Celine Halioua, CEO of Loyal, published a pair of blog posts accusing de Grey of making inappropriate remarks to them early in their careers, when he was serving as their mentor. Deming was just 17 years old at the time. The women also alleged that SENS had known about their experiences since June and looked the other way while de Grey helped the organization raise more than $20 million through a donation drive last month, during a time when, SENS has said, he’d been placed on leave as chief science officer pending the outcome of the investigation.
Deming said in an interview that O’Neill told her during a June phone call that he had been trying, and failing, to initiate an investigation of de Grey for months. The men’s relationship had soured, in part over disagreements about the direction of the foundation.
Halioua said she thought the rift developed because O’Neill wasn’t deferential to de Grey in a way he’d come to expect from the people he worked with: “Everyone else on that board, and I know most of them, are Aubrey worshippers, and Jim wasn’t,” she said.
The women told STAT that they initially reached out to O’Neill and board member Jonathan Cain in June with their concerns about de Grey’s behavior, who elevated the matter to Barbara Logan, the board chair. According to emails obtained by STAT, both women spoke to Logan at the end of June, and shortly after, she connected them to a lawyer from the Sacramento, Calif., firm Van Dermyden Makus, whom SENS had hired to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations against de Grey.
Over the first half of July, Halioua and Deming met separately over Zoom with the investigator and provided her with accounts of their interactions with de Grey. On the same day as one of those meetings, July 16, de Grey was using Twitter and Facebook to promote a fundraising campaign in partnership with cryptocurrency HEX founder Richard Heart. In the lead-up to launching his new currency, Pulse, Heart was offering people a chance to win some of the currency if they donated to SENS. De Grey’s posts and tweets about the opportunity, referred to in the crypto world as an “airdrop,” were amplified by official SENS social media accounts. On both Facebook and Twitter, SENS accounts also promoted interviews de Grey gave to publicize the campaign.
About a week later, Deming and Halioua learned through a friend that O’Neill had changed his LinkedIn profile to say he no longer worked at SENS. According to O’Neill’s LinkedIn page, his affiliation with SENS, both as its CEO and as a board member, ended in July. He had served on the board of directors since 2010, and as CEO since October 2019.
In interviews, the women told STAT that the combination of seeing de Grey continue to operate in what appeared to be an official capacity while he was supposedly on administrative leave and O’Neill’s departure caused them to lose faith in the investigative process. On July 24, Halioua said she called Deming when she heard about O’Neill’s departure and they began discussing going public on their own.
“Jim was the person we called first and he left, so that was a motivating factor,” said Deming.
O’Neill was a managing director at Silicon Valley superstar Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital firm, and co-founded the Thiel Fellowship — Deming was one of two women in the initial class. To many in the longevity field, when O’Neill came on board as CEO of SENS in 2019, it signaled that SENS was evolving from somewhat of a fringy place into a more mainstream operation. But in the last six months, according to Deming and Halioua, a power struggle over the future of SENS began to develop between O’Neill and de Grey.
Deming first suspected something was amiss when she received an email from de Grey in mid-June imploring her to help him reach Halioua. In March, Halioua had described him in a tweet as “an absolutely terrible human being” and de Grey had been trying to reach her via email to ask why. When she didn’t respond, he turned to Deming.
“In the course of my cleanup of my board I unfortunately discovered that a number of very derogatory and completely untrue claims about my past behaviour have been doing the rounds,” de Grey wrote in a June 15 email to Deming that she shared with STAT. “It was easy to clear my name once I found out what was being alleged, but it’s not trivial to get that word out to everyone who has heard the allegations. I’m assuming that Celine is one such, and I would be VERY happy to clear the air with her if she would be up for a quick call — but, as I said, she hasn’t replied to my request for one.”
It was when Deming described this interaction to O’Neill on the phone not long after that he mentioned his unsuccessful efforts to investigate de Grey. O’Neill did not respond to voicemail and text messages seeking comment.
Although his profile remains on the SENS board of directors webpage, another page on the website dedicated to the SENS executive leadership team was recently removed. An archived version from June 14 describes the executive team as including de Grey, the “visionary behind SENS,” and O’Neill. “Together they lead the foundation into a second decade of aging research and technology,” the page states.
When asked about O’Neill’s departure, Lisa Fabiny, the acting executive director at SENS, declined to comment beyond the organization’s earlier statement. After STAT asked questions about why the page was removed, the URL was changed to one that requires a password.
Three SENS board members, Logan, Bill Liao, a venture capitalist and general partner at SOSV, and Michael Boocher, the head of investment strategy at Sage Technologies, declined to comment on the allegations or O’Neill’s departure. The remaining board members either could not be reached or did not respond to voicemails and texts. When reached via email, de Grey directed STAT’s inquiry to Fabiny, citing his administrative leave. Fabiny reiterated that SENS was still “not at liberty to make any further comments regarding this matter.”
In a Facebook post Wednesday, de Grey wrote that he denied the women’s allegations that he had harassed them, although he acknowledged sending an email to Deming when she was 17 — “inadvisedly, for sure, and which I unreservedly regret” — in which he wrote that he had an “adventurous love life” and expressed a suppressed desire to talk about it with her.
Halioua was twice selected as a SENS summer scholar, a program for undergraduate students to work in the labs of regenerative medicine researchers. During her time there, she said, she learned that SENS executives would openly rate the attractiveness of the female scholars. A sexual undercurrent “was just imbued in the culture of SENS. But for years I thought it was normal, I thought it was just how people networked,” she said.
In her blog post, she described going to a SENS dinner where de Grey allegedly told her that she had a responsibility to have sex with the donors in attendance so they would give money to the organization — something de Grey wrote that “I utterly deny ever saying.”
“I always felt like my value was tied to my looks,” Halioua added in the interview. “The guys would go out drinking with SENS leaders. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that for obvious reasons, which limited networking.”
Katie Palmer and Kate Sheridan contributed reporting.