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Google co-founders’ personal take on biotech

A semi-secret life sciences lab, and a general commitment to supporting medical research. Google’s venture into the world of biotechnology can be traced back to its co-founders.
What is Google?

Answering that question has become increasingly difficult as the company expands into our cars, our homes and even inside our bodies.

The latter is the goal of Google’s Life Sciences labs in Mountainview, California – to put technology inside our bodies that will predict future illnesses.

Thomas Schulz has seen these “predictive” medical devices inside the labs. He’s a US-based business reporter for the German politics magazine “Der Spiegel” and says Google’s most exciting development is a pill filled with nanoparticles.

“So you actually swallow a pill, and it takes a certain measurement inside your body, and then you have another device on your wrist that’s going to read the results,” he told DW. “They think that could lead to tons of different ways of predicting what your health is going to be in the next few weeks – maybe you have a stroke coming up and you don’t know about it yet.”

Another piece of medical technology they’re working on is a kind of contact lens.

“The contact lens is for people who have diabetes, so you don’t have to use a needle every time to find out what your blood sugar is,” he says.

But why?

Exciting as these new technologies are, they do raise the question of what on earth Google thinks it is doing dabbling in biotech. Where Apple tracks and records things with its Apple Watches and iPhones and Microsoft analyzes health data, Google is trying to create medical devices that will need approval by America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before doctors – inside hospitals and clinics – then allow patients to put them inside their bodies.

This is a radical departure from Internet technology and, well, isn’t there an air of hubris about the whole thing? There are tens of thousands of researchers throughout the world trying to solve our health problems. Can Google really do it better?

“Google thinks medicine is a new area that will also be brought forward in the next few years by computer science,” Scholz says, “and that everything related to medicine and technology will not only be a thing that pharmaceutical companies take care of.”

The company has therefore hired hundreds of scientists from different fields to do basic research related to life sciences and medicine at their California labs. “They can basically do what they want there,” Scholz says, but adds that the company does have certain criteria for choosing projects.

“They say, ‘We’re not gonna pick a certain illness that’s only a problem for a couple hundred thousand people.’ They always think in the dimensions of, whenever we’re going to do something, it’s going to be for a billion people at least. And that’s with all their projects. And that’s the same for health and medicine.”

A breakthrough

Still, even Google – or Alphabet, as we’ll have to get used to saying – can’t solve the world’s health problems with just a few labs and a few hundred scientists. Another means of encouraging medical research is to raise the profile of science – and scientists – generally. And thus, the Breakthrough Prize.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his now-ex-wife Anne Wojcicki were one of four Internet tech “power pairs” who together founded the Breakthrough Prize, which is also referred to as the “Oscars of Science.” The prize awards $22 million to deserving scientist in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics at something of a red-carpet event, flanked by some of Hollywood’s finest.

One of the scientists who took home a prize this year is John Hardy. He’s an Alzheimer’s researcher, and he received the award for putting the disease’s “pathology in order,” as he puts it. Roughly seven weeks ago, he was sitting at his breakfast table eating bacon and eggs when he got a call saying he’d won $3 million (2.8 million euros) – with no strings attached.

“I didn’t know I’d been nominated,” he told DW. “I just literally got a phone call telling me that I’d won … Of course, for me personally, it’s great. It’s also great for my institutions. We’re trying to get the money together for a new building at Queen Square to do more dementia research. Obviously, more dementia research is needed.”

What Google wants

Google’s co-founders, then, are financing the life sciences twice over: Sergey Brin is doing so privately and altruistically through the Breakthrough Prize, and both Brin and Page are leveraging their company’s billions to develop profitable new medical technologies.

Yet the co-founder’s reasons for venturing into biotech are also personal, Schulz says.

“[The lab] was really Sergey and Larry. Both of their spouses – well, ex-spouse in regard to Sergey Brin – come from the field of medicine. So they have a personal investment there.”

Anne Wojcicki, Sergey Brin’s now ex-wife, is a biologist who founded a personal genomics and biotech company. Larry Page’s wife, Lucy Southworth, has a PhD in biomedical informatics.

For reporter Thomas Schulz, who recently published a book entitled “What Google really wants” (available only in German for now), the life sciences labs are all part of the same strategy that recently saw Google get subsumed under a new corporate entity called Alphabet.

“First, they want to be the most important and the most successful company not for two years, but for the next 50 or 100 years, which makes you operate at a very different level,” he says. “Second, they think they can really have an impact on society as a whole, and they’re really serious about it. This is not a PR thing. They really want to change the world.”

He then adds, “According to what Larry Page thinks is important.”

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