Dr. Robert Hariri
Dr. Hariri in his New Jersey Celularity office.

Q&A: Dr. Robert Hariri

A pioneering stem-cell researcher, he is also a pilot who spends 300 hours a year in the flight deck of his Bombardier Challenger 604XT.

Click here to watch video excerpts and outtakes from the interview below.

You might expect to find Dr. Robert Hariri strolling through the headquarters of Celularity, the biotechnology company he founded, outfitted in PPE and sterile paper slippers. But when we caught up with this 62-year-old, physically fit aviator, he was in his light-filled office in the 150,000-square-foot Florham Park, New Jersey facility, wearing a black shirt, black pants, and black boots. It’s a look that downplays his role as the pioneer of placenta-based stem-cell research to treat life-threatening diseases and his transformative contributions in immuno-oncology and cell therapeutics. 

Hariri is a neurosurgeon, biomedical scientist, and aerospace entrepreneur. He is also co-founder of a company called Human Longevity; chairperson and CEO of Celularity, a soon-to-go-public firm working to creating cellular medicines to treat cancer and other diseases; and co-founder (with Tony Robbins and Dr. Peter Diamandis) of Fountain Life, a company devoted to finding ways to increase human lifespans. 

Hariri helped discover the physiologic tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a chemical secreted by cells of the immune system that affects cell survival, proliferation, differentiation, and death and may be involved in inflammation-associated carcinogenesis. He was also the first to obtain FDA approval to use cryopreserved allogeneic, a cell therapy to treat adults with COVID-19. He holds over 200 issued and pending patents for discoveries including placenta-derived stem cells and has published more than 200 articles. Among the many accolades he has received are the Liberty Science Center Genius of New Jersey Award and the Pontifical Medal for Innovation, which Pope Francis awarded to him. 

Passionate about flying, Hariri is a pilot who has logged thousands of flight hours in over 60 different military and civilian aircraft. He flies his own tricked-out Challenger 604XT for business and to commute to a home in the Bahamas with his family. In his spare time, Hariri loves to scuba-dive and also enjoys shooting clay, traps, and skeet.

You began your career as a Pan American pilot?

I wanted to be an airline pilot, and I worked for Pan Am. I also envisioned a military career, but it was post-Vietnam, and there were no long-term flying jobs. That’s one reason I went to medical school. Somebody said to me, “Kid, go to medical school and make enough money so you can buy your own plane and not fly somebody else's.”

Dr. Robert Hariri
Dr. Hariri (here in the left seat) flies his jet about 300 hours per year.

Do you see any connection between flying and medicine? 

Pilots and surgeons are both very much problem-solving and solutions-oriented folks. I gravitated towards endeavors that were technologically challenging, that, if you mastered, you could figure a way out of anything. Becoming a surgeon was very empowering, just like being a pilot.

You’ve compared the treatment of disease to flying.

The treatment of a disease requires you to figure out the problem, identify the root cause, and return the system back to a normal state. In aviation, if I have a problem with the hydraulic system, a backup or alternative system provides a solution that keeps you flying. Same thing in biology. Most diseases can be linked to a functional problem in the immune system.

What is the approach you use in cellular medicine? 

You replace the immune system, do a bone-marrow transplant, a stem-cell transplant, or recharge the reservoir of cells to do the job and push the system back to normal. 

You’ve said, "Every stem cell can restore the functional regenerative process and restore anatomic and physiological functions consistent with health." Can you explain?

The degenerative processes that we find in our musculoskeletal system, joints, and the lean muscle are a chronic degrading of the tissue by injury, followed by inflammation, followed by injury again, and more inflammation. The system never gets a chance to fully remodel itself back to normal. If you didn’t repair your house every time you had a problem, over time it would degrade so much that the whole thing would fall apart. That's exactly what happens in the body. 

In the future, body replacement parts will be biologic because we can make cartilage, for example, in the laboratory. But the best way to approach this problem is to identify it early enough to intervene with something really simple like cell therapy or exosome therapy, ways that stem cells drive the system back to normal. Every stem cell thinks it's in a fetus, and the fetal system has this unique ability to always repair itself to almost perfect. 

How long does it take you to get approval for a treatment?

On average, 10 years. We have programs in clinical trials where we’re seeking FDA approval to turn these living cells and byproducts into medicines. We can harvest a hundred thousand or more doses from one placenta, which is the perfect, scalable, raw material. That discovery was considered to be one of the most meaningful breakthroughs our company has made.

What can people do to age more healthfully?

At Fountain Life, we’re giving people nutritional, exercise, and other strategies to protect the integrity and quality of their stem-cell reservoir as they're aging. We're also working to introduce products that can support the function of the stem cell system, which should slow the degenerative changes that occur with aging.

What is Fountain Life designed to do?

We analyze and review a patient's genomics, we look at high-resolution MRIs. We find things people never notice. In the companies that I've founded, 14 to 30 percent of people who come in with a clean bill of health—and these are affluent people who have great healthcare—have something we identify which is a potential cause of premature death and that, if addressed early, has a higher probability of cure. 

Weren't you the first to discover that the placenta is a stem-cell factory?

Yes. It's kind of interesting that a guy trained in neurosurgery and trauma pays attention to the leftovers of a full-term pregnancy. In medical school, we were taught that the placenta was an interface between the developing fetus and the mother. I explored this and realized the organ wasn't designed as an interface; it was designed as a bioreactor, literally a cultivation environment. The placenta evolved as this remarkable defense system, and we're just harnessing some of that natural power.

Do you think we’ll see other viruses like COVID-19?

This pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the next one. We have to come up with a generic therapeutic approach that can be used across the board against viral infections. One that can be sitting there waiting so that you don't need a year to come up with a vaccine.

We should be looking at strategies to develop immunotherapies for infectious diseases. Viruses are so complicated, and there's so much diversity in their molecular expression. But if we know that people who get viral infections and do poorly do so because they don't have a high-functioning immune system, let's just boost that immune system.

What are you concentrating on now?

Our cancer programs. Get [our treatment for] Crohn's disease as quickly through the clinical-trial cycle as possible to get an approval and then leverage that into many other approvals of existing assets as well as new ones in our pipeline. 

Dr. Hariri's current jet is a tricked out Challenger 604 XT.
Dr. Hariri's current jet is a tricked out Challenger 604 XT.

Let’s talk about your other passion, flying.

I was in love with flying at a very early age. I took an introductory flying lesson in an aging little Cessna 150, and the instructor gave me a job washing airplanes and pumping aviation fuel. I earned my flying lessons. 

I was part of a group including Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis, and current NASA director Jim Bridenstine that created the world's first rocket-powered civilian airplane. We built and flew these rocket-powered airplanes with the objective to take them into NASCAR- type competitive racing.

Rocket racing has since evolved into Phantom Space, a company competing with those getting into private space, and I'm one of the founders of that group. I also built an FAA-certified 135 operation, operating a fleet of airplanes as a heavy jet international transport company, from traditional and tactical charters to working for groups contracted to the military.

What was the first airplane you bought?

I bought a Lear 24D when I started this company. I wanted to be able to go to meetings and be home the same day. I would call this Lear a pocket rocket. It’s a very high-performance airplane. 

About 20 years ago, I got into Bombardier aircraft and my first was a Challenger 600. It's a great platform and a large airplane, so the comfort inside is quite good. It's got pretty decent range, and performance. I've gone from the 600 to the 601 to the 604, which I've just upgraded, and I've flown the airplane around the world multiple times. 

Why do you fly privately?

For me, it's a luxury that's become kind of a necessity. The airplane is a flying office. I've got my Wi-Fi, my sat phone. I can sit in the cockpit and in flight have a computer and a cell phone, so it increases productivity. And I can go to multiple locations in a day without having the long delays experienced if I were flying commercially.

How have you tricked out your Challenger?

Mine is a 10-passenger configuration with plenty of room and a very nice galley. I just put in sophisticated avionics. I’ve updated the interior, but the big investment was this new Rockwell Fusion system, a cockpit with three high-performance screens that provide the PFD [the primary flight display], the multifunction display, and any information you want can be projected on the screen. 

In flight, I get weather information and can view my approach plates and my in-flight charts and can actually watch my approach on an approach plate. The Fusion system has synthetic vision, which means that on the screen is a rendition of everything in front of you. You can taxi the airplane looking at the screen—it's that accurate. It's pretty remarkable.

What’s the purpose of your flights?

I use the airplane for business extensively. I can get to the West Coast and be in two or three cities in a day, then come back, only missing a day in the office. I've got a home in the Bahamas, and it's two hours and 15 minutes from New Jersey. It's really convenient for my family.

How much would you say you're using this airplane?

I probably fly 300 hours a year as a pilot, which is a pretty decent amount of time at the stick. 

Dr. Robert Hariri
Dr. Hariri spoke with BJT's Margie Goldsmith in his Celularity office. (Photo: Ian Whelan)

You flew with Buzz Aldrin a few weeks ago?
Buzz is like the uncle I never had—brilliant, cocky, the right stuff kind of guy. The [NASA astronauts] all were. I've had the privilege of meeting so many of these guys. I actually flew in a Learjet with Neil [Armstrong]. Buzz and I became very, very close friends, and whenever we're in the same place, going the same direction, we fly together.

If you could buy any plane, what would you buy?

I think the new Bombardier Global Express is a remarkable platform and a pilot's airplane with speed, range, and performance. It’s much bigger than the 604 and has such a long wing and all these leading-edge devices. It gives you tremendous flexibility. You can get in and out of these tiny little island airports. I think the Global Express would be my dream aircraft so I'll keep looking under the Christmas tree.

What's the most important thing you have left to do?

I am committed to taking the technology we invented and having it transform the way we treat diseases. I don't want to be in a retirement home somewhere realizing that because I didn't work hard enough or because I made mistakes, we couldn't get this stuff across the finish line, because I know it'll help people.

People now live to 80. We need to develop tools to preserve high-performance cognition. If you maintain a high-integrity immune system, you can live to 100 and beyond with a fantastic quality of life. We need to make these technologies easily deployable and preserve human performance well beyond our target life expectancy. If we do that and those folks can contribute to the economy as seasoned members of society, we all win.

This interview has been edited and condensed.