Google Ventures, the investment arm tasked with spending the search giant's billions on exciting new companies, released its annual report last night. Interestingly, the majority of its money did not go into the areas of consumer internet services, mobile apps, and enterprise software that Google is best known for. Instead, of the $1.6 billion it has under management, it put a whopping 35 percent of its new bets in 2014 into the category of life sciences and health, way up from less than 10 percent in the two years prior. So we hopped on the phone with Bill Maris, the managing partner who helped create Google Ventures, to get his take on why life science is such an exciting area and what lies ahead in 2015.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So what is it about health and life sciences that is so exciting to Google Ventures right now?
I think that’s where the future is, the future of everything important. What’s more important than your health? For the first time really in history, we have the tools, especially in the life sciences, to really pursue any vision around healthcare that you are audacious and tenacious enough to pursue.
"Healthcare is becoming part of information technology."
Healthcare is becoming part of information technology. The acceleration we saw in computers from 1960 until now is an acceleration we’re going to see in the life sciences, and that’s why it’s a huge opportunity. And not just for making money. You make a great investment in the consumer internet, maybe you make a lot of money and create something useful, interesting, or fun. But in life sciences you have a chance to be part of something that lets people live longer and healthier and not lose the people they care about. That is really profound.
Flatiron Health is a great example. Two ex-Googlers who sold a company in digital advertising space, then remade themselves as oncology experts, trying to apply the same tools around ingesting and analyzing unstructured data to gain insights they did in advertising, and apply that to cancer. They have built a very fast-growing company. One in five cancer patients whether they know it or not, are involved with Flatiron Health. They help doctors make better recommendations for treatment by looking across the vast amount of information they have gathered on other cases. It’s one of the very few companies we put a nine-digit number into, $130 million, because the future is so bright for them. 20 years ago you didn’t have the ability to ingest and organize that information in the cloud, the tools simply didn’t exist.
Is there still a push and pull between tech and healthcare? My recent visits to the doctor are still full of paper records and information that can’t be easily shared between providers.
I don’t think it’s a push and pull, I think it’s push push. There is so much acceleration that can happen now that these tools exist. In 2000 you couldn’t sequence a genome, maybe for a billion dollars and over five years. Now you can do it on your desktop in an hour for a couple hundred dollars. That one genome is a huge achievement, but only in the network, in the context of all the genomes you can sequence, does its real value come through. Now we are at the point where we can sequence millions, billions of genomes, and we can take the first step which is to start to diagnose the markers of diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's which we think might have genetic causes.
"For me it’s like the difference between blood-letting and penicillin."
The huge gulf between 2000 and now, we are going to cross an even bigger gulf in the next 10 years where we will learn so much about the way your body works. For me it’s like the difference between blood-letting and penicillin. Ok, we have no clue what’s going on so we’re just going to bleed it out of you because we don’t know what else to do. Versus, here is a pill, and if you take this you won’t die. That is such a huge difference that happened in such a short amount of time. That’s what we’re about to see again.
Say you have cancer, you have this broad thing we call cancer, we’re going to irradiate you, and pump this poisonous material into you and hope more of the bad stuff dies than the good. That is going to seem so medieval when we can fix it on a genetic level, and Foundation Medicine is the first step to diagnosing it on a genetic level. Not just, you have breast cancer, but what exactly is going on in the that tumor. That is step one. You can see the path ahead to personalize medicine for people.
Going one step beyond curing disease, Google is now working on the incredibly ambitious project of curing death. How are you involved with Project Calico?
Calico was my idea. I’m super proud of it. It came from a thesis I had that no one was studying aging at the genetic level. What is aging, versus the diseases we associate with aging.
What’s the response from people in the mainstream when you discuss this with them? Do people push back against that as unnatural? What do you think of people who say it’s going to far?
Those are people who probably haven’t died yet, for sure, but maybe haven’t had someone really close to them die. Certainly I respect the different point of view, but I feel like the "natural state" used to be that you would die in your 30s or 40s. You would lose all your teeth, and that was "natural." New ideas are scary.
If you said to most people in 1900, would you like to live to be 100, they would have said no thank you, it seems to so unimaginably bad. Now people expect to live to be 70 or 80, and if you asked if they wanted to live to 100 most would probably say yes. Now ask them if they want to live to 200 and most would say, I don’t know about that. But the reality is if you were going to die tomorrow and someone offered you another 10 years, most people would take those 10 years.
"It’s not about scary immortality."
And the beauty of it is you can always opt out. If you don’t want that extra time, you can always opt out of the system, but I don’t have an interest in opting out of the system, nor do I want the people that I love opting out. It’s not about scary immortality. What if your grandmother didn’t have to die of congestive heart failure or some debilitating stroke where she can’t move half her body? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? I find that generally when I can talk to people about it and take some of the scary unknown away it becomes less intimidating.