Larry Page has a cold
When Larry Page has a cold, all of Google gets sick. In the Spring of 2012, the CEO was forced to stay warm in bed and cancel his participation at the annual shareholders conference as well as his annual speech at Google I/O. He’d lost his voice. We all imagined poor Larry Page wrapped up in blankets, sipping honey milk in his high tech villa, passing the day gazing out his window at the redwood and apricot trees dotting the streets of Palo Alto. But then he remained silent for almost a year. People began to suspect that he had something other than a nasty cough. Chairman of the board Eric Schmidt had a tough time reassuring investors and the public.
But that’s how it all began. 17 years ago, Larry Page got a cold that took his voice away. He didn’t worry about it too much at the time, but once he was well again, his voice remained hoarse. Finally, he consulted a doctor who informed him that his left vocal cord was paralyzed.
A nervous condition prevents his vocal cord from vibrating properly and is responsible for his strained voice. Three years later, he got another cold. His second vocal cord was affected. He was then diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, an ailment also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis after the Japanese doctor who discovered it in 1912. It’s more common among women but affects all victims the same way: bacteria attack the thyroid gland and damage the vocal cords. A simple cold can aggravate the condition.
When Larry Page came down with a simple cold in the Spring of 2012, his voice was essentially turned off, forcing him into a quasi monastic existence. He could no longer geek out at his beloved Google I/O rendezvous, during which he always discussed the tech giant’s prospects before legions of loyal fans. The following year, when he returned to the stage, he sounded like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Today, he reportedly needs a microphone to speak during meetings, even small ones. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is known to cause severe depression and lead to manic behavior – and even thyroid cancer in some cases. But so far, the CEO says he hasn’t experienced additional symptoms. He jokes that his co-founder Sergey Brin tells him he’s become a better CEO ever since he got sick because he’s forced to carefully choose his words now.
But Brin’s health hasn’t been spared either. When he was 26, his mother, Eugenia, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. In 2008, he married Anne Wojcicki, a genomics scientist and co-founder of 23andMe, a biotechnology company that analyzes genetic codes. While acting as one of the company’s first guinea pigs, Brin discovered he had inherited a rare gene mutation linked to a gene called LRRK2. He has between a 30 and 75% chance of developing a fatal neurodegenerative disorder for which there is currently no cure. Brin has given himself 10 years to fight the disease.
When Google[x] was created in 2010, few people made the connection between Google’s new “secret lab” and its two heads’ health. In addition to futuristic R&D projects, Google[x] includes a health division, from which Google X Life Sciences was born in March 2013. The program combines science and technology to develop methods to prevent and control diseases. It’s headed by Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist whose work in the 1990s succeeded in reducing the cost and time needed to analyze blood samples for viruses such as AIDS.
“For the last 2000 years, medicine has been a slave to reactive systems,” Conrad told journalist Steven Levu in October 2014. When we’re sick, we go to the doctor. He or she examines us, prescribes treatment, tells us to rest a few days and sends us home. But when it’s serious, we often consult specialists once the condition has already reached an advanced stage of development. For example, most cancers are detected at advanced stages, when they are probably untreatable, even though most people have a 90% chance of recovery if they are detected in the first stage. “Our main premise at Google Life Sciences is that something is wrong with the way we work with medicine today,” Conrad continued. “With our partners, we will work to transform current medicine into a proactive system.”
In August 2015, Sergei Brin announced the creation of Alphabet, a conglomerate of companies that clearly distinguishes Google from its various subsidiaries. That December, Google Life Sciences became its own entity and was renamed Verily.
A new hope
For as long as humans have existed, we’ve always dreamed of curing disease. The Bible tells us that a king named Hezekiah, who reigned over the kingdom of Juda during the 8th century BC, begged God to save him from an incurable disease. The almighty answered his prayer and granted him a 15-year reprieve, during which he was able to fully enjoy his life and kingdom. Likewise, Silicon Valley’s kings of tech have no intention of abandoning their kingdom just yet. They don’t want to relive the tragedy of Steve Jobs, whose death some experts say may have been due to his choice to treat his cancer with alternative medicine. This partly explains why the tech giants are investing in medicine. Mark Zuckerberg predicts that we will be able to “cure, prevent and control” all diseases by the end of the century, and Bill Gates is certain that cancer “will no longer be a problem in 30 years.”
Verily CEO Andrew Conrad agrees. He also had a cold the day he opened Google Life Science’s doors to journalists. “I’d rather focus on a cure for cancer, I’ll take care of my cold later,” he joked before the cameras.
The company’s first project is creating a bracelet capable of detecting the first signs of cancer using nanotechnology. Here’s how it would work: the patient would swallow a pill containing magnetic nanoparticles, whose cores are composed of iron oxide, that would mingle with the blood. These microscopic particles have the ability to attach to cancer cells. The bracelet, meanwhile, would serve as a magnet to collect the nanoparticles and interpret what they saw in the blood. If they revealed the presence of dangerous cells, the patient could be treated before the disease developed further. However, since the project was announced in the fall of 2014, no prototype has emerged yet. “Verily is a visionary company,” says MIT professor Robert Langer, “but it remains to be seen if their system will be safe, because today we know that magnetic nanoparticles are toxic.” Verily’s engineers have their work cut out for them.
That’s true for most of the company’s projects. Verily looks like Santa Claus’ toy factory a month before Christmas Eve: all of its ideas are exciting, but almost none have come to fruition. We must remember, however, that Verily promised to make medicine evolve, and for that it needs time. The first challenge Andrew Conrad and his team faced was finding partners to develop each of their projects. Currently, five of those projects are on track.
On July 15, 2014, the Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis announced it had signed an agreement with Verily and Alcon, its special ophthalmology division. The collaboration is meant to give birth to smart lenses capable of measuring glucose levels to help diabetic patients monitor their disease more accurately. The lenses should also allow far-sighted people to read more comfortably by mimicking the auto focus function of the eye. “Our dream is to use the latest advances in electronic miniaturization to improve the quality of life for millions of people,” said Sergey Brin when the agreement was signed.
Diabetes – a disease estimated to affect 552 million people worldwide by 2030 – is another one of Verily’s central concerns. In addition to their agreement with Alcon, last September the company announced the launch of a new start-up called Onduo in collaboration with the French medical company Sanofi, with whom it had partnered up in August 2015. This new platform will look into a comprehensive treatment of diabetes, combining Sanofi’s experience in healthcare with the advanced techniques developed by the Google subsidiary. As a first step, they may design big data-based software. Verily also partnered with DexCom in August 2015, with whom it has collaborated on the development of miniaturized electronics. Both companies plan to release a miniature blood glucose meter in 2018 and a disposable “bandage” capable of measuring the rate of glucose by 2020.
Last summer, Verily joined forces with the British pharmaceutical group GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Their joint venture, Galvani Bioelectronics, plans to use tiny devices that can be implanted into the human body to treat patients by using electrical pulses – as is done with pacemakers. “Many human body processes are controlled by electrical signals established between the nervous system and the organs,” says Brian Otis, Verily’s chief technology officer. “And some chronic diseases like Parkinson’s can disrupt them.” This is not the first time Verily has turned to technology to treat Parkinson’s. On December 1, 2016, the company announced the launch of Liftware, a line of electronic spoons designed to help Parkinson’s patients feed themselves (as well as other people with various motor problems). This first product will enter the market two years after Google’s takeover of Lift Labs and its integration with Google [x] – a buyout initiated by Sergey Brin.
Verily’s fifth flagship project is a joint venture called Verb Surgical in collaboration with Ethicon, a subsidiary of the American pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson. Verb Surgical’s mission is to create intelligent surgical devices that don’t need cumbersome computers. “600,000 robotic surgeries are performed every year in the United States,” says company CEO Scott Huennekens. With the system they are developing, he imagines that number will increase to 10 million over the next 20 years. “We are still far from a fully automated robot,” he says. But that’s what the future of Verily’s surgery will look like.
Rob Enderle, an analyst of new technologies, has been following Google closely since its inception. He told us what he thinks the true purpose of the company is. “Verily was created to make Google’s founders immortal,” he says. “The company is solely focused on extending human life. These are not the first tech billionaires to try it: Larry Ellison invested in the field before them.” Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, indeed founded the Ellison Medical Foundation to end aging.
“Our mission is to allow people to live longer by ridding them of the diseases that kill them before age does,” says Andrew Conrad. “By miniaturizing electronics, understanding how to use nanoparticles, and analyzing large volumes of medical data effectively, we have the opportunity to create many innovations that will transform the way we treat ourselves.”
Andrew Conrad is the one person who could turn this dream, long held by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, into reality. But he’s also the person who could ruin it.
In all honesty
In a report published last March in STAT, a health news magazine, journalist Charles Piller reported that 14 Verily executives left the company in 2015. Nine of them had been present at the founding of the company and two others participated in the launch of GRAIL, a company funded by Google Ventures and Bill Gates. Since then, the scientist Vik Bajaj – another Verily founder – has joined GRAIL (though he still chairs Verily’s scientific council). These sudden departures are said to have been caused by Andrew Conrad, with whom it’s very difficult to work, former employees say.
“Verily” was a word commonly used in Middle English during the 13th century. It means “in all honesty.” Since its launch in December 2015, one of the company’s watchwords has been “transparency,” as Jessica Mega, Verily’s director of medicine, likes to remind us. “Scientific rigor will always be at the heart of what we do,” she says. “Our second goal is to build teams of some of Google’s top engineers with top scientists. The third is transparency, and the combination of these three aspects is what will enable us to make a difference.”
But asides from press releases and posts on Verily’s blog, nothing filters out from the company: none of its activities or projects. When anyone tries to meet with key players, they come up against a wall. “Given the visibility of these projects and the competitiveness of the community, Alcon and Verily are making a conscientious effort to maintain confidentiality around their joint projects,” Alcon’s communications manager told us. Former Verily employees say that talking to a journalist without the express permission of the hierarchy is enough to get them fired. But there may be other reasons for this opaqueness besides industry secrecy.
Although Verily has discussed its smart lens project at length, John Smith, the former scientific director of LifeScan (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson), said he received the news “with skepticism” when it was announced in 2014. “Researchers have been working on lenses using biosensors since 2003, and not one has made it to the market,” he says. “There must be some 30 non-invasive technologies that claim to be able to measure glucose levels from tears, saliva or sweat.” According to Smith, the technology can’t beat this simple reality: that these fluids cannot reflects blood’s glucose level. Are the two still related? Alcon and Verily scientists are racking their brains trying to figure that one out.
Another seemingly stalled project is the cancer-detecting bracelet – or the “tricorder project,” as Andrew Conrad calls it, in reference to Star Trek. A former Verily employee who wished to remain anonymous recalled the meeting during which Conrad announced they would find a cure for cancer. “On a big screen, he posted images of nanoparticles stalking cancer cells in the blood, then transmitting light signals to a bracelet equipped with a sensor to warn of their presence,” he says. After the presentation, Conrad promised to release a prototype within six months. That was three and a half years ago. Employees who have left the company in the meantime say that the tricorder project has fallen by the wayside. “Verily/Google is not a real medical company,” Rob Enderle says. “And venturing into areas that are not well known is always creates problems.”
When Verily was launched, Andrew Conrad said, grandly, that “only with truth will we defeat Mother Nature.” The truth, according to his former partners, is that the scientist-entrepreneur often speaks more than he acts. Dr. Michael Luther, now CEO of Bantam Pharmaceutical, worked with him while he ran the David H. Murdock Research Institute, which Conrad helped found. “We used to call him the “gull of science.” He’d come in suddenly to squawk and shit on everything. And then he’d leave,” he said, laughing.
Babak Parviz, who started the smart lens project, is among those employees who’ve abandoned ship. Today he is the vice president of Amazon.com. Jean Wang, one of Google’s “senior engineers” who worked at Verily, also joined Jeff Bezos’ company in the summer of 2014. “If such important people leave before the first projects come to fruition, there’s obviously something wrong,” Enderle says. “Still, he has a solid background and he seems to be the ideal person for the job. Not to mention that the autonomy he has enjoyed since the foundation of Alphabet can only be positive for Verily. We have to be patient and see where they are in the next few years.”
Jeff Huber did not have the patience. He left his position as advisor to Conrad to become the CEO of GRAIL in February, a start-up whose mission is to create a blood test that can prevent and treat cancer before the first symptoms appear. “It’s impossible to talk with Andrew for more than 10 minutes,” says Michael Luther. “He is the type to promise you lots of things but the result is often disappointing.”
Andrew Conrad has many ideas that would undoubtedly revolutionize medicine – if they left the realm of science fiction and entered scientific reality. It’s a safe bet to say that all projects undertaken by the company will not stay at the PowerPoint stage. But for now, there are many at Verily who think that the grass is greener at GRAIL. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who have a foothold in both companies, just have to wait for one of them to find a cure to mortality.