At an industrial park in San Leandro, a small group of artists, scientists and tech enthusiasts are trying to sell an alternative to death: cryonic suspension. The company, Transtime, preserves the recently deceased in liquid nitrogen under the assumption that one day the frozen cadavers can be revived.
Transtime is one of four cryonics operations in the U.S., and its proximity to Silicon Valley should make it the most popular. But the company has had a hard time getting bodies in the door.
A competitor in Arizona, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, has 1,339 people either frozen or signed up for the service and revenues close to $2 million, according to its most recent filings. Transtime says it has has three people in its care after 40 years of operation. One of them is the company’s founder, Paul Segall, whose fortune continues to fund Transtime’s operations.
It’s a fortune the company hopes to outlive.
“We have to decide what we’re going to do with this company,” said Ed Monroe, Transtime’s president. “Are we just going to float around with two, three people back there?”
The plan is to rebrand — a move intended to capitalize on the growing number of tech workers in the region, many with a keen interest in staying young for longer, perhaps even forever. Pulling in that demographic could be the company’s best shot at long-term solvency.
“Money, intelligence and a faith in technology is what you need for a booming cryonics market,” Garan said. “And the Bay Area has all of that.”
The birth of cryonics
Cryonics has been practiced since the 1960s when Bob Nelson, a Los Angeles TV repairman, froze nine patients. He struggled to keep them chilled, and they ended up decomposing. Their relatives sued Nelson and won a hefty settlement.
Since then the technology has captured pop culture’s imagination and garnered sensational headlines, the most notable being the alleged mistreatment of baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams’ severed and frozen head. Though legal in California, it has been called a pseudoscience, and its practitioners have been accused of scamming patients and their families with false promises of immortality.
With its location so close to Silicon Valley, Transtime’s tech world neighbors share some similar ideologies about prolonging human life. Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, has reportedly donated more than $400 million to anti-aging research. Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, believes humans will be immortal before the end of the century. And Russian tech mogul Dmitry Itskov is on a quest to transfer human consciousness into machines.
Making the pitch
So far none of tech’s biggest names has signed up at Transtime, but the company is trying to court industry employees by opening its doors this summer to visitors.
As a fluorescent light flickered in the sparse office, Garan and his colleagues gave an impassioned pitch to a half-dozen potential clients, most of them from the tech world. He showed them an operating table for draining blood from cadavers and replacing it with clinical antifreeze to prevent damage to the body. He pointed to a large metal cylinder said to be packed with 500 gallons of liquid nitrogen and three cadavers, chilled to 296 degrees below zero.
While the company is courting the high-tech sector, its decor remains low tech. The computers look old and the machinery older. Monroe says the company is in the midst of a cosmetic makeover.
“If you saw this place two years ago, you would have thought, ‘Where are the rats, where are the cockroaches?’” he said. “We want it to look like a modern cryonics facility, and it’s slowly starting to look like that.”
At one of the tours, San Mateo programmer Autumn DeSellem, 36, considered signing up. “Some people think it’s unnatural, but what’s unnatural about wanting to continue living?” she said. “It’s more natural to want a better burial, a preservation burial, than to decompose in the ground.”
The company plans to charge clients roughly $120,000, and it encourages them to invest in a living trust so when they wake up from deep freeze, they’ll potentially be rich.
But there’s no guarantee the six-figure investment will pay dividends. If scientists don’t discover a way to reboot the dead, then cryonics will turn out to be nothing more than a pricey funerary service. Friends and relatives could wind up waiting indefinitely for their loved ones to return — a new type of purgatory that could alter how people grieve.
Curing death could also fundamentally change life. “It’s only through a full embrace of our mortality that we become most fully alive,” said Stanford literature Professor Robert Harrison, a vocal critic of cryonics. “There is nothing more deathly, in a spiritual sense, than this war against death itself.”
‘It’s a crap shoot’
There are more practical questions as well. If life-giving technology is invented, it’s unclear how much it will cost — or if the $120,000 price tag could cover it. If people can be be reanimated, no one knows what medical state they’ll be in.
“The chances of there being some version of me are pretty good, but whether that version is something I think is worth paying for is another question,” said Jim Yount, chief operating officer of the American Cryonics Society and a former Transtime board member. “Currently it’s a crap shoot, but it’s the only crap shoot in town.”
Garan is certain scientists are on the cusp of being able to resuscitate the dead, citing a theory often quoted in the Silicon Valley: Moore’s law. “Science will advance faster and faster,” he said. “So when people die, we put them in a situation where they can survive the technological gap. When the technology comes online, we can reboot them.”