Google is looking beyond investments to expand its footprint in healthcare, with its decision to launch a new company focused on developing technologies to fight aging and associated diseases—just two years after shutting down an electronic health records effort, which had the same goal but failed to catch on.
“There’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives. So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses. And please remember that new investments like this are very small by comparison to our core business,” Google CEO Larry Page said yesterday in a statement posted publicly on Google+.
Calico, as the new company is called, will be run separately from Google. Heading Calico will be Arthur Levinson, the chairman of Roche’s Genentech subsidiary and former CEO (before the company got bought), as well as chairman of Apple and former director of Google.
“Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness. These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families,” Page added.
Google’s top executives are no exception. Page himself disclosed earlier this year that he was diagnosed with left-side vocal-cord paralysis, and is also experiencing impairment on the right side. And Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, is funding a collaboration between Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline to develop a new class of medicines designed to slow down the progress of Parkinson’s disease. Brin learned in 2008 that he has a 50% chance of getting Parkinson’s by age 70 (he is 40 today) because he carries the LRRK2 gene mutation.
Calico is Google’s latest investment outside its core businesses of Internet advertising and consumer services. The company is developing a wearable eyeglass-shaped computer called Google Glass. And through its Google Ventures, the company has invested in health and life sciences startups that include 23andMe, Adimab, DNAnexus, Flatiron Health, Foundation Medicine, Predilytics, Rani Therapeutics, SynapDx, and Wingu.
“And while this [Calico] is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people,” Page said.
Google thought it could do the same in 2008 when it launched Google Health, with the goal of attracting millions of consumers to store, update, and track online their personal health records. But the technology didn’t draw as many as Google had expected, and in 2011 Google pulled the plug on the service, with its senior product manager lamenting at the time: ““Google Health is not having the broad impact we had hoped it would.”
Google clearly hopes for better from Calico: “With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives,” Page said on Google’s website.