Google didn’t spill much on Calico, the Google Ventures founded biotech company that made headlines last month by taking on human mortality and challenging aging, but that hasn’t stopped new tidbits about the well-financed health startup from leaking out. Described as the brainchild of Google Ventures’ managing partner Bill Maris, Calico’s pitch to investors was to investigate the genetic causes of aging, Fortune reports, rather than targeting individual diseases like cancer.
According to insiders familiar with Calico’s formation, Maris was inspired by the work of the Human Genome Project, which had coded the entire DNA sequence. The combination of that, and an understanding of how Big Data crunching could be implemented, led to suggestions that Calico could compare the genome of healthy older people – such as those who had made it to their 90s without encountering any significant health issues – and see how, in aggregate, they differed from others.
Fortune’s sources say Maris used a so-called “genie” analogy to convince well-heeled potential investors that Calico was worth backing:
“If a genie gave you three wishes, your first wish would be for a million more wishes. But our lives are like those three wishes. We don’t know if it’s three days or three thousand, but we know it’s finite. If you have to invest in anything, shouldn’t it be in trying to get more days (or at least more quality days)”
Sergey Brin – who is not only a Google co-founder but current director of special projects, responsible for pushing schemes like the Google Glass wearable computer and the company’s self-driving cars – then went on to commit to “a minimum of hundreds of millions” in investment, though the search firm won’t yet say exactly how much it is contributing. It’s not only Brin who is involved, however; CEO Larry Page is also onboard, commenting at Calico’s announcement that its findings could be more valuable than finding a cure for cancer.
“One of the things I thought was amazing is that if you solve cancer, you’d add about three years to people’s average life expectancy” Page said last month. “We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.”
The view of Calico is that it will be more about long-term research, at least initially, than directly getting involved in pharmacology and clinical trials. In fact, it arguably shares more in common with genome-database projects like 23andMe, which – as the Washington Post points out – was co-founded by Sergey Brin’s wife Anne Wojcicki. Similar data-first schemes include President Obama’s Brain Activity Map project, which is expected to spend billions on figuring out neurology and brain activity.
23andMe offers $99 DNA testing, flagging up information on over 230 health conditions and traits from a simple spit stick. Beyond the individual results, however, the company has a research arm, 23andWe, which aims to use the combined testing data for scientific advances. “With enough data,” the company says, “we believe 23andWe can produce revolutionary findings that will benefit us all.”
That could one day mean Calico – and similar firms taking Big Data approaches to healthcare – weighing into the so-called Obamacare segment, the Washington Post argues, bringing disruptive and non-traditional methodology to an industry currently locked up by doctors, insurance companies and big pharma, and getting a huge surge of extra patient data as a result of more people beginning to access testing. Google’s project won’t be the only one to do similar, of course; other mHealth schemes like Vital Connect’s disposable wireless biometric monitors are aiming to bring technology to bear in making data collection more affordable.
For the moment, Calico is still in its early recruitment stages. Art Levinson – Apple chairman and one of the industry experts Maris consulted for suggestions on who might want to lead the company, but who surprised him by putting himself forward – is said to be in the midst of the interview process with potential staff.
IMAGE Weixiang Ng