The Agenda

Meet the Silicon Valley investor who wants Washington to figure out what you should eat

When it comes to better nutrition, Joon Yun thinks government is the answer.

Dr. Joon Yun.

Joon Yun strolled the white marble halls of the Cannon House Office Building looking like the Silicon Valley hedge fund manager he is, no tie and his collar unbuttoned, California style.

It was his first visit to the U.S. Capitol, the beginning of a quixotic quest to persuade Washington of an idea. His first meeting was with someone who at first glance might appear to have little interest in policy proposals peddled by Silicon Valley types: a Trump-supporting Kansas lawmaker who sits on the Agriculture committee.

Yun, 51, is a radiologist by training, but he is best known for putting up millions in prize money to spur innovations to end aging. Over the past two years, however, he’s been transfixed by another issue. He is here today to help convince lawmakers, including Republicans who often think government is the problem, that there is at least one problem the feds can help solve: the country’s epidemic of diet-related disease.

Nearly half of American adults now have diet-related diseases like obesity or Type 2 diabetes, yet the connection between illness and food has perplexed the best scientific minds for decades. Meanwhile, the federal government has failed to make nutrition research priority. Fixing this requires a new federal agency dedicated to the issue, Yun argues, and it should be set up under the National Institutes of Health.

America, Yun says, needs a National Institute of Nutrition.

“There’s public appetite for this to happen,” Yun said, after a meeting in March with Rep. Roger Marshall, the Republican from Kansas. “We all grow up hearing that food is a source of life. But in our lifetimes, we’ve started to hear that food is killing us.”

The statistics speak for themselves. An estimated 318,656 deaths in the U.S. each year are attributed to diet-related disease. Treating these ailments is among the top drivers of ballooning health care costs and is fueling national debates over how to overhaul the system, whether by scrapping Obamacare or implementing “Medicare for All.”

Yet preventing these diseases ― through better diet and other interventions, like physical activity ― is largely absent from the political conversation on Capitol Hill.

For decades, the federal government has spent a tiny fraction of its medical research dollars on nutrition, a POLITICO analysis has shown. Last year, for example, the National Institutes of Health invested $1.8 billion, or 5 percent of its total budget, on nutrition research. The Agriculture Department’s main research arm, which is responsible for developing America’s nutritional guidelines, spent even less: $88 million ― an amount essentially unchanged since 1983 when adjusted for inflation.

No one in the federal government seems to be setting strategy for nutrition research, either. Installing a new agency at NIH with fresh leadership would raise the profile of nutrition, help set research priorities and, ideally, secure more funding, Yun said.

Most navy suit-donning visitors to the Capitol are selling ideas that financially benefit them or their employer. This does not appear to be case for Yun. A new National Institute of Nutrition likely wouldn't inflate the biopharmaceutical assets managed by his firm, Palo Alto Investors. In theory, a healthier population would mean fewer prescriptions and medical treatments.

So here he is shaking hands with Marshall, who’s become an unlikely ally in this quest for a new institute. Marshall is a physician, an OB-GYN who thinks a lot about how to bring down the cost of health care. He has seen firsthand the effects of poor diets on mothers and children in his practice. The second-term lawmaker is supportive of Yun’s idea and says he wants to hold hearings to get the issue on the radar of more lawmakers. After all, without support from GOP lawmakers, any move to create a National Institute of Nutrition can’t be approved by the Republican-led Senate.

“Right now, I pick up the paper — and I know a little bit about nutrition — and what I read confuses me,” Marshall said, recalling that when he was in medical school, nutrition was only offered as an elective worth about an hour of credit. “I just think that we’ve turned our backs on nutrition.”

IN THE LATE 1990s, while still a practicing radiologist at Stanford Hospital, Yun began investing in health care with Palo Alto Investors. He went on to become president and managing partner of the physician-led firm, which manages $2 billion in assets primarily in the biopharmaceutical industry.

His foray into nutrition science began with a chance meeting in Los Angeles in 2017 at the Milken Institute’s annual conference attended by the who’s who of global politics, science, philanthropy, business and entertainment. The headliners that year spanned from George W. Bush to Reese Witherspoon to Jim Yong Kim, former president of the World Bank.

Yun was there to talk about longevity, a personal project on which he once gave a TED talk. Following his panel, he met Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University’s nutrition school and a cardiologist, through a mutual friend. Mozaffarian “talked about things I’ve never heard anyone else talk about,” Yun said, so he asked for a meeting, and another and another. They met four times during the multiday conference.

Like Yun, Mozaffarian wants the health care system to pay more attention to nutrition, and major research institutes like NIH to make it a higher priority.

“We have a system that spends billions on treating diseases, yet very little on researching the basics of prevention, like nutrition and stress,” he said. “At the same time, nutrition science is improving, but much of what it points to is more questions. What’s the role of the microbiome? What about probiotics? What about supplements?”

Yun had his own questions, too. He had long wondered what are the effects, if any, of consuming plants and animals stressed by their environment. If a cow has high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, do humans pick that up when they eat beef? He realized no one knew.

In November 2017, he took a Silicon Valley-style approach to the problem and convened researchers from universities and companies like Nestle, investors and food writers at a science museum on San Francisco’s waterfront. He wanted to find out if he could make a difference by throwing some money at the problem. But a key takeaway from the event was the lack of public funding for and coordination of nutrition science across the federal government.

“I entered this thinking, ‘Can I fund some scientists?’ I came away thinking this is far larger than I can do myself,” Yun said. “The opportunity is really for public agencies to reimagine what it means to create the knowledge base needed.”

Yun took what he learned from that Bay Area event and began studying legislation that created other institutions, like the National Cancer Institute in 1937, and drafted a bill dedicating one to nutrition.

Yun’s belief that only Congress has the power to jump-start an overhaul of nutrition science is rare for Silicon Valley, where investors are more inclined to “move fast and break things” than to work within institutions. Yun himself is known for having an anti-establishment bent.

To spur breakthroughs in extending the human lifespan, Yun launched a $1 million contest in 2014 to “hack the aging code,” in part by challenging competitors to extend a mammal’s life by 50 percent. He also has an intense interest in political cartoons and countercultural art; he attends the Burning Man festival regularly.

Yun’s vision for an NIH institute focused on nutrition fit into a new push by Tufts University's nutrition school, which wanted to expand beyond academia and have a tangible impact on policy.

“We need to bring together diverse allies. This can’t just be about health, but about business expenses being crushed by health care costs,” Mozaffarian said, adding that both the military and the food industry should be on board. “It requires a consortium of people across the political spectrum.”

Yun and Mozaffarian are careful not to criticize NIH, which historically has been resistant to major changes in its structure at the whim of Congress. Not criticizing NIH is politically savvy: Mozaffarian’s own research is often funded by NIH through a competitive grant process. In 2018, he was awarded $1.5 million to run an epidemiological study looking at consuming animal products and cardiovascular disease risk. Tufts as an institution is also a significant beneficiary: It received $57 million in 2018 from NIH for many different types of clinical research.

“We’re not intending to say existing USDA or NIH research isn’t useful,’’ Mozaffarian said. “It is useful. It’s just not enough.”

ON CAPITOL HILL, the idea of creating a National Institute of Nutrition is a long shot. Political polarization in Congress has largely paralyzed legislation, only exacerbated by the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Asking lawmakers to come up with new money for an entirely new agency may be comically out of touch.

But Yun and some lawmakers are thinking about the long game.

“I understand that we’re perhaps on day number one and it may be 20 years from now before this nutrition concept is prioritized by Americans, but it has to start somewhere,” Marshall said after his meeting with Yun and Mozaffarian last spring.

Marshall says the idea for the institute meshes with traditional Republican values like fiscal responsibility: “I tell people I can never touch the national debt if we don’t start driving down the cost of health care,” he said.

Yun and his allies are hoping that Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NIH budget, will be the Democratic champion they need in the House.

They already have one high-profile supporter in the Washington policy community. David Kessler, who led the FDA during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, teamed up with Yun and Mozaffarian in the summer of 2018. He had taken part in a panel hosted by The Washington Post at which he called the U.S. government “clueless” about how to reverse the nation’s alarming obesity rates.

“I would go back to the basics. Set up, in the National Institutes of Health … a National Institute of Nutritional Sciences,” Kessler told the audience. “I would try to answer very basic questions: Is a calorie a calorie? What’s the basis of insulin resistance and diabetes? What’s going on with my brain?”

Kessler’s comments made waves on the health and nutrition Twitterverse, and it wasn’t long before he got a call from Mozaffarian. Several months later, Kessler was on a plane to visit Yun at his home in the Bay Area. The two had never met or discussed a national institute. It was a coincidence they had the same idea.

In an interview, Kessler said that if DeLauro decided to use the power of the purse that comes with chairing the Appropriations subcommittee, she could propel a plan forward much more quickly than stand-alone legislation would.

“I know from 30 years of friendship that she gets this,” Kessler said of DeLauro. “When the time comes to sum it all up, and they ask, ‘What did I accomplish?’ This is one of those things lawmakers can say made a difference.”

DeLauro told POLITICO in a brief interview she’s “taking a very serious look at the proposal.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a former 2020 presidential candidate, has introduced a bill that would set up a National Institute of Nutrition. He was inspired after reading an op-ed in The New York Times that was co-authored by Yun, Kessler and Dan Glickman, a former secretary of agriculture.

“We are having the wrong conversation right now around health care,” Ryan told POLITICO in a phone interview. “If half the country has diabetes, the system will still go belly up.”

“I want to shift the conversation to prevention,” Ryan added.

Yun acknowledges that creating a new institute at NIH is a big ask, one that could take decades. But he is prepared to work on the effort for as long as it takes, hosting meetings, writing op-eds and showing up on Capitol Hill. He wants Congress to take the idea and run with it without resorting to the typical tools of influence. He’s not hiring lobbyists or making political contributions.

“I don’t think we can afford not to have a National Institute of Nutrition,” he said.

Helena Bottemiller Evich and Catherine Boudreau cover agriculture and nutrition for POLITICO Pro.