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Google launches healthcare company Calico to extend life

The tech giant is a major investor in the California Life Co., or Calico, which will work on combating aging and disease.

September 18, 2013|By Jessica Guynn
  • Calico is the latest in a series of ambitious projects undertaken by Google to test the power of technology to change lives.
Calico is the latest in a series of ambitious projects undertaken by Google… (Krisztian Bocsi, Bloomberg )

SAN FRANCISCO — Google Inc. believes that making big gambles can yield revolutionary advances, whether it be cars that drive themselves, wearable computers connected to the Internet or air balloons that beam wireless Internet access to remote areas of the world.

Now it's searching for ways to keep people alive longer.

The technology giant said Wednesday that it's a major investor in a venture that would work on combating aging and disease. But Google declined to provide any more details on how the venture would operate or what it would do.

Google is not the first technology company to make the leap into healthcare. The search for the fountain of youth — and health — has long been a great obsession in Silicon Valley.

The project is being led by biotech pioneer Arthur Levinson, chairman of the boards of Apple Inc. and Genentech Inc. Levinson, the former chief executive of Genentech and a Google board member, was named the CEO and founding investor of the California Life Co., or Calico. He will report to Larry Page, Google's chief executive and a major supporter of Calico.

Analysts said the project should be met with a healthy amount of skepticism.

David Brailer, chief executive of Health Evolution Partners, a private equity firm that invests in the healthcare industry, said Google could not have set a higher goal.

"Extending life is about as high as it gets on the human scale," Brailer said. "It's obviously a profoundly important goal."

Harvard Business School professor Regina Herzlinger said previous efforts to mine vast amounts of data "has yet yielded huge payoffs in healthcare."

But Google may have the clout to speed medical breakthroughs and push change in an American healthcare system deeply resistant to it, she added.

"The Google guys and Levinson are geniuses and fabulous business people so they may hit gold where others have not," Herzlinger said.

Page told Time magazine Calico's approach would be unconventional, like much that Google does.

"Are people really focused on the right things? 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," he said.

"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."

Google is relying on Levinson who has not only a sterling track record in biotechnology but also as a key adviser to the most important technology companies.

"It's one of those things that is close to impossible, but you have got the right guy to try and tackle it," Brailer said. "This is about Art, about his ability to convene the right people to focus on an agenda that is realistic and bring a very pragmatic approach.... I am intrigued by it and can't wait to hear more."

Calico is the latest in a series of ambitious projects undertaken by Google to test the power of technology to change lives.

Within Google these projects are called "moonshots." They are not part of its main Internet search and advertising business, yet represent the company's philosophy of questioning what's possible, and "10x thinking," creating things that are at least an order of magnitude better than what already exists.

For Google, nothing is off limits. Even death is on the firing line.

Google's two founders, Page and Sergey Brin, are involved in Singularity University, a think tank that believes humans and machines will at some point become one, making the stuff of science fiction — immortality — a reality.

They believe that harnessing computers with more brain power than human beings has the potential to revolutionize life and even perhaps one day cheat disease and death. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and anti-aging crusader, also works on artificial intelligence for Google.

Illness has touched the lives of Brin and Page. Brin, who has said he has a higher-than-average risk of being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease — which his mother had — has funded research. Page suffers from a rare nerve disease that restricts the movement of his vocal chords, affecting his voice. He also has Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an inflammatory condition of the thyroid.

They are just two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs looking to slow down or stop the natural process of aging.

Larry Ellison, the billionaire CEO of Oracle Corp., has donated $445 million to his medical foundation to fund research on aging and age-related diseases. In 2006, PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel gave $3.5 million to researcher Aubrey de Grey and the Methuselah Foundation, which awards scientists working on anti-aging efforts.

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