In Discussion With: Eli Casdin of Casdin Capital
3x1 is a brand defined just as much by our unparalleled commitment to making the finest jeans in the world, one pair at a time, as we are by the community of people who wear them. Who are these people? They are our friends, collaborators, and partners. They are inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, and teachers... It is here, within the Atelier Journal series "In Discussion With...," that we highlight who these people are and the tether that ties them together which ultimately is authenticity, passion and an appreciation for the best of what life has to offer - and, of course, their collective love of jeans by 3x1. We hope you enjoy their stories.
The world of biotechnology is, to the sweeping majority of us, enigmatic. Genomes, cellular therapy, DNA screenings—the vocabulary alone is enveloped with scientific and technological speak that unless you're embedded in the industry can feel like conversing in a foreign language. That is unless you're equipped with a translator such as Eli Casdin. We arrive at Casdin Capital on a Friday afternoon. The office is situated on the 24th floor on the bustling corner of 6th Avenue and 55th street and the picturesque views from the conference room would make even the purest New Yorker nevertheless feel enamored with the cityscape.
"My number one favorite color is blue. Number two I have no idea," Casdin jokes from a chair across the room when we ask about his appointed interview outfit. He's wearing a chambray blazer, button-down shirt, and of course, a pair of 3x1 jeans—all blue. There are three almost instant impressions you get upon meeting Casdin, aside from his inclination toward a cool color palette. First, his no-nonsense good nature. Second, his New York accent. It's the kind of hearty, authentic intonation they try to replicate in film but never quite master. Third, his eloquence and intelligence. In other words, he's able to sit down with anyone ("at least once" he quips) have a genuine conversation, joke a bit, discuss hard-hitting topics, and still make it home downtown via bicycle in time for dinner with his wife and kids. He's the ideal person to decode a complex topic with and we had the honor of sitting down with him to do so.
"We invest in life science technologies, which are all of the tools that researchers use to study biology, human disease, plant and animal function; and then we invest in the companies that use those technologies and insights to make products," he begins. "Whether they’re diagnostic products for early detection of cancer or once you develop cancer understanding what genes are mutated so you can match particular drugs to it; we invest in companies that develop therapies around those insights."
A crucial component to these developments is pushing to understand the molecular differentiation.
"What we’re learning over time is that diagnoses like cancer, breast cancer, cardiovascular diseases; these are diagnoses of convenience for doctors," Casdin explains. He offers the example of a woman discovering a tumor in her breast. She has a similar symptom amongst disparate patients and is subsequently placed in that aggregate. "As we’re learning more about biology and genes and genomics and genetics we’re realizing that yes there’s a commonality with a tumor in a breast, but it’s all driven by different mutations which may require a different type of therapy."
Another example of the success of dissecting and researching these individual mutations is blood cancer. In 1950 it was called blood cancer. In the 1970s they called it leukemia and lymphoma. Today there are 170 different subtypes of those diseases. "The good news is in 1950 survivability of blood cancer was 0%, today it's 70%. So as you start to break it down, you can actually do something."
Plant and animal function is another fascinating piece of the genomic puzzle. Casdin's eyes wander around the room, and he points to a plant on the table between us. "All the technology in this room;
phones, watches...the plant is the most complex the most efficient and the most dynamic. It's self-regenerating," he adds. "The complexity of that plant is so much more than a phone."
So how does that come into play with a biotech firm? It turns out; there's a spate of possibilities. From companies that edit seeds to make them drought resistant so they can grow in errant places to those that have identified the sequence that makes rose petal essence and then engineered a yeast and brew it like beer in a vat to supply to brands like Tide to use in their detergents. It may not be curing cancer, but it's shifting the supply chain in a significant and (what many would argue) planet-conscious way.
Casdin founded his firm seven years ago and now has a team of 18. "Success is almost entirely determined by the people running the endeavor," he says. "You have to have a good idea and you have to have good technology but you have to have great people...I'm a native New Yorker I feel like I'm a good judge of character but that's probably not enough so what we find is that really impressive people—if they're truly impressive—hire even more impressive people around them and below them."
Casdin got into the business with what he calls his "dinner table MBA." His father, who began investing in biotechnology in the 1980s, started a fund in 1997 and according to Casdin only liked to talk about two things at the dinner table.
"Number one: his house in the Berkshires that he was restoring that we called the 'Work Camp'. Number two: Biotech," Casdin says with a smile. "I got this dinner table MBA in an industry that was just emerging so I have a lot more experience than just the 15 or 16 years I've been doing this."
With this wide breadth of knowledge and experience (and his aptitude at speaking in Layman's Terms to us non-science folk), we were vying to pick his brain about what he considered the most remarkable advancement of our time thus far as well as his prediction for what would be the most important advancement in our lifetime.
"DNA is the source code of all life. It's a blueprint for how your body works but it's also a production manual," he says. "In 2003 they read the first person's entire genome." It was called The Human Genome Project. It took 13 years to do. It cost three billion dollars. It was just one person.
"The issue is if you need to study disease and understand which genes are mutated and not functioning well what you have to do is analyze thousands of people with this faulty form and thousands of people without and compare and contrast and dig deeper."
Today you can do that same Human Genome Project in one day for one thousand dollars.
"It's the fastest technological advancement in modern history," he continues. "That's probably —what they call—the watershed event."
With regard to advancements in our lifetime, Casdin cites our concept of disease as a whole.
"I grew up in the city and in the 1980s HIV was a death sentence and a very quick one," he says. "Today the life expectancy of someone who has HIV and is on their medications is equivalent to someone without HIV, which is a phenomenal advance in technology.
His conjecture is that we will see a similar story with cancer as that of HIV. "You're living with this disease, it's not killing you, and you're going about your life."
Associated with that change, he predicts, is life expectancy.
"I think we’ll live longer. Certain diseases we're wrestling with now will not be an issue, others will become more of an issue, like dementia," he says. "You want to live at a really high level for a long time and then drop dead. Right now what we're doing is we're living longer but we're declining and that's not so fun."
Before Casdin was lending pivotal insights into biotechnology he was, as he mentioned, a kid growing up in New York City. He got his MBA at Columbia but before doing so an unexpected encounter with golf shirts (yes, golf shirts) revised his career path, albeit for a brief period of time.
We reveal to Casdin that upon a bit of research we unearthed a 1998 New York Times article that chronicles the quick success of a clothing brand dubbed EDMC, founded by none other than Casdin himself and a couple of friends in their early twenties.
"Oh boy. Yeah..." he says with a grin. "I had this really bad idea in high school. Have you ever heard of a company called Lily Pulitzer?"
He goes on to tell the anecdote of how his friend's grandfather left him an assortment of brightly-patterned Lily Pulitzer golf shirts that he and his pals proceeded to wear about town.
"Everyone thought they were cool. We thought they were cool," he laughs. "So I was in college and I told my father I wanted to get in the real world. That I was wasting time. I said I wanted my college tuition and I wanted to use it to start a clothing company."
His father obliged and the three began EDMC. Casdin had some friends that were artists and the idea was to create a funky men's golf shirt company. With some leftover fabric, they also sewed skirts and dresses.
"We got into Barney's and Fred Segal and Henri Bendel and a couple other places. So we got a little bit of traction. However, it turns out men don’t wear funky golf shirts. It’s not happening," he chuckles. "But teenage girls at the time we discovered had a completely disposable income and our patterns looked good in skirts and dresses, and we pivoted and became a teenage girls' clothing company."
It was around this time Casdin met 3x1 Founder Scott Morrison. He jokes that Morrison, over time, told him they didn't know what they were doing.
"We were just a bunch of city kids, and we didn’t know what we were doing but it was kind of working, but over time I learned that I really didn’t know what I was doing in the clothing business... I also figured out that I wanted nothing to do with the fashion industry [but] that I liked business."
He eventually decided to head back to school and was able to convince the powers that be at Columbia to let him finish his degree and a master's degree simultaneously.
"The nice thing about this space, it’s technology and exciting, but in the end, if the product works you change someone’s life, and that’s very motivating," he says of his choice to pivot back to business school and into biotech (post business school he went to work for his father). "You can do well by doing good.”
Thankfully, despite his exit from the fashion industry Casdin and Morrison remained friends.
"I think I've been wearing Scotty's stuff since... well there was Paper Denim & Cloth and then Earnest Sewn. The Earnest Sewn ones weren't as good as the Paper Denim ones but you know I couldn't stay with the Paper Denim ones when he left… it would have been rude," he teases. "3x1 is the best, definitely."
When we asked about how denim fits into his life he explains jeans are a Friday through Sunday staple as well as his after-work wear.
"The thing that’s so confusing is you’re not allowed to wash them! Or are you? It’s very confusing. Scotty's all crazy that I’m washing them...he's like 'when you first buy ‘em I want you to put them on and either walk into the ocean wearing them'—which I did once, totally absurd. Like a music video.—'or sit in the bathtub'. It’s a whole thing. So there’s a guilt factor that comes with it now that wasn’t there initially," he says laughing.*
When he's not operating his biotech firm or stressing about how to wash or not wash his jeans, Casdin is spending time with his family. His wife (who, in addition to his late father, Casdin cites as the most significant influences on his career) is on the Heart Failure-Cardiac Transplant team at Columbia. Together they have two kids who he says he's a short order cook for (his french toast recipe is killer). Casdin grew up on 79th and Broadway but lives in the Greenwich Village neighborhood now. When we asked him what makes you a true New Yorker he responded with two comedically specific answers.
First, that it's "knowing how to keep constant forward momentum and effectively crossing the street against the light while traffic races by and then applying that skill set in all areas of your life." Secondly, "Being able to judge character and spot trouble a few blocks ahead and navigate away so you don’t get scammed or mugged, curb level mugging is far less common now then it was in the late 70s and 80s, and while you no longer need to hide your money in your shoe while keeping enough 'mug money' in your pocket so you don’t get beaten up, the ability is as important as it has always been!"
We wrap up the interview exchanging our favorite haunts to grab a bite (Bar Pitti and Il Buco), recent reads ("Grant" by Ron Chernow"), and a reflection on the difficult aspects about what he does for a living.
"Putting yourself out there, being open to changing your mind," he shares "And holding on even when it feels bad."
Words by Nicole Kliest
*An important note from Scott:
Not only is Eli one if the smartest, funniest, most creative people I know, to this day I’m reminded of how lucky I was to meet him in the first few months of moving to NYC. It’s harder to see it now, but I’ve always admired Eli’s slant on the city and what makes things go around, and truth be told, he’s always had amazing personal style (although maybe a little less so in late 1990’s – 2001 when I first met him #EDMC). That being said, I swear I never told him to run into the ocean, or jump in a bathtub with his jeans on (okay fine, I definitely told him soak his jeans in a bath when he washes for the first time), and guilt factor is always optional.