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Not So Verily

The folks at Stat clearly have some good sources inside Google’s Verily startup. They ran a story back in March about problems with the CEO (blogged about here), and now they’re back with more opinion from within. This piece has a number of people expressing dissatisfaction with how Verily’s three big projects are actually going, as opposed to how the press releases for them are going:

It’s axiomatic in Silicon Valley’s tech companies that if the math and the coding can be done, the product can be made. But seven former Verily employees said the company’s leadership often seems not to grasp the reality that biology can be more complex and less predictable than computers.

They said Conrad, who has a PhD in anatomy and cell biology, applies the confident impatience of computer engineering, along with extravagant hype, to biotech ideas that demand rigorous peer review and years or decades of painstaking work.

Verily said in response to this criticism that it has hired “many seasoned and respected industry, academic, public health, and regulatory veterans who understand the complexity of biology and how long it takes to move from idea to device and/or therapy.”

One of these ideas is the so-called “tricorder”, a medical diagnostic device deliberately named after the Star Trek gizmo. That’s inviting trouble right there, if you ask me – you may recall that the show’s equipment was more of a plot device than anything else (as was the transporter), allowing Dr. McCoy or his successors to immediately establish that a leading character was going to pull through or that some extra in a red shirt was a goner. We’re not going to see that one on the shelves any time soon, but by using the name, you invite comparisons with something that isn’t even close to real. The project comes out of Google’s previously expressed interest in nanoparticles for diagnostic applications, but the problem is that Verily’s CEO told reporters that the technology was proven and that the device itself would be rolled out in just a few years, because everything was so safe that animal testing could just be skipped.

We use Star Trek as our guiding force around Google because there used to be a computer called Tricorder —you’d talk to it and it would answer any question. That’s what we’re really looking for at Google X. We want to have a Tricorder where Dr. McCoy will wave this thing and say “Oh, you’re suffering from Valerian death fever.” And he’d then give some shot in a person’s neck and they’d immediately get better. We won’t do the shots—our partners will do the shots. But we’re hoping to build the Tricorder. . .

. . .We’ve done a lot, to be quite humble about it. Enough to give us great confidence that this is all likely to work. . .

We know that much of this works: we’ve become very good at nanoparticle decorating, we’ve become very good at concentrating them and understanding how they behave in magnetic fields. There’s still a million crazy things that happen with people, and there’s a long journey to put medicines into people, and it has to be done in the open because we’re going to do experiments— people will be wearing these devices at our Baseline Study. But I think we have years to go, not decades.

You’re not going test on animals first?

You don’t have to in this case, the medicines are well known. I think we have pretty demonstrable evidence that this concept is plausible, maybe even probable. . .

Uh-huh. As a note for the future, any time someone tries to tell you that a new biomedical technology works so great that it doesn’t even have to be run through a rat, you should probably start heading for the exits. To be sure, Andrew Conrad does talk about a “long journey” and so on, but that (to me) looks just like a sprig of parsley on the side of a big steaming plate of We’ve Got This. Verily’s statement to Stat about the project sounds a lot more grounded in reality, though, as opposed to being grounded in whizbang PowerPoint slides: they said in response to a query that it’s “very early stage”, “ambitious”, “difficult” and so on, and I have no problem believing any of that, as opposed to believing that it all pretty much already works, y’know, to be humble about it. The people who spoke to Stat were even less complimentary, saying that it was generally assumed now within Verily that the whole project now existed mostly to get good press coverage.

The other big projects – a contact lens that reads off glucose levels, and a large “Google Baseline” study of human health in a standard population – aren’t doing all that well, either, as the article details. And I think that one reason for the problems, a big one, is described up in that first quoted section: we’re very smart, and we can do hardware and software very quickly and make it all work, and since everything in the world comes down to hardware and software, we can do most anything. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, but I attached the late Andy Grove’s name to this particular fallacy some years back, and it seems to have stuck.

The Stat article goes on to say that some of Verily’s smaller and less-hyped projects do seem to be working out better, but those aren’t the ones that grab the headlines and generate the noise. Vaporware is a Silicon Valley tradition, and it’s not unknown in the biotech world, either, but it doesn’t go quite as far over here as it does out by San Jose. There’s no softwarebetatrials.gov web site, there are no NDAs when you decide to release a new app, and there are no advisory committee meetings with public minutes where experts grill you about about your user interface or how quickly your algorithms really converge. It’s a different world, and it has to be a different world, and it’s worth keeping that in mind.

33 comments on “Not So Verily”

  1. Kling says:

    The C level people in my pharma have drunk the Google Kool Aid hook line and sinker and quite enamoured about their delight, reflected in internal blogs etc. The scientists amongst us cringe. No one is brave enough to confront them. I wonder if anyone will forward them the STAT article. Maybe I should, but I am not visionary enough.

    1. Argon says:

      > I wonder if anyone will forward them the STAT article. Maybe I should, but I am not visionary enough.

      This *is* vision: “I think that the minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed.” – Elizabeth Holmes

  2. Peter Kenny says:

    Even a well-oiled serpent needs to pay close attention to compound qualiry metrics and singlet oxygen filters?

  3. Mark Thorson says:

    . . . because everything was so safe that animal testing could just be skipped.

    When I read that, I laughed out loud. The reality distortion field must be set to 11.

    1. oldnuke says:

      We’re going to skip animal testing and test these devices in Human Resources, Legal, Marketing and the C-Suite.

      Oh, I thought you wanted a phaser, My bad, wrong episode!

      1. chekhov says:

        setting tricorder to stun…

        1. oldnuke says:

          Stun, hell…. 🙂

  4. watcher says:

    Another set of smart people who don’t understand what is needed to make a new drug or new diagnostic, including Regulatory. FDA will have to spend their time and our collective money to set them straight.

  5. Anon says:

    Short, Buy, or Takeover: Verily, Calico, Theranos

    1. Todd says:

      The thing is that I think Verily will work out, but with something they never thought of. They’ve gotten their butts kicked enough to bring in real Biotech people, and they’ll get something out of it. It’ll just have low sex appeal, yet make lots of money. Ya know, like most things in this industry.

      1. Claes says:

        Dull is the new sexy. That should be Verily’s credo. Then I would invest.

  6. matt says:

    The secondary project to work with a company measuring glucose using a persistent needle, and refocusing tech in the eyes, sounds very much like competent and smart employees working hard to recover from the crap their boss spilled.

    Has somebody already done an implantable glucose sensor, read wirelessly from the outside?

    1. Morten G says:

      Yup, but they went belly up. It was a tiny grain, implanted at tattoo dye depth and then a FRET signal was read by an outside monitor. Biodegradable and human compatible. New grain inserted every 6 weeks.

  7. Curious Wavefunction says:

    “It’s axiomatic in Silicon Valley’s tech companies that if the math and the coding can be done, the product can be made.”

    File this under Not Even Wrong (as applied to biotech)?

  8. Dr. McCoy says:

    Damn it, Spock! – I’m a doctor, not a magician. Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!

    1. Spock says:

      Verily highly illogical, McCoy

      1. Elliott says:

        Just use some stone knives and bearskins…….

    2. Dr. Manhattan says:

      It’s worse than that, it’s dead, Jim

      1. not waving says:

        Look around you. Can you form some sort of rudimentary lathe?

  9. kjk says:

    “the reality that biology can be more complex and less predictable than computers”

    “biotech ideas that demand rigorous peer review and years or decades of painstaking work”

    This is what’s ironic about biology: it’s so wonderful and complex but so many people have to do “painstaking work” rather than being able to make the computer do the tedious number crunching. The paradigm shift is probably going to be to first take the tedium out of biology; Transcriptic comes to mind (lab automation).

    1. Bay Area guy says:

      I had an interesting chat with Transcriptics precocious CEO last summer. I like his vision and expect them to do very well. Perhaps exceptionally well if they’re able to leverage all of the customer data they’re acquiring.

  10. johnnyboy says:

    PoC at Verily: forget the Proof part, now it’s “Plausibility”

  11. Kelvin says:

    While expectations should always be carefully managed and it never pays to over-hype otherwise it always comes back to bite you (Theranos?), far more “moonshot” projects are killed before they are ever given a real chance. So on that basis I would say:

    “Keep reaching for your dreams – and there’s nothing wrong with a Star Trek vision as long as it’s possible in theory – but don’t try to con or mislead anyone – especially yourself – that it’s not going to be a bumpy ride through the unknown!”

  12. Mccoy says:

    My God Jim, I’m an app developer not a doctor!

  13. Jose says:

    Is there a name for this effect?

    The ‘I-am-so-clueless-I-don’t-even-know-how-deep-the-issues-are’ effect? Something like ‘not even wrong’ but with some hubris, insane optimism, and application of entirely unhelpful cross-discipline ideas thrown in?

    The Verily Effect?
    The Silicon Phallus effect?

    Any other ideas?

  14. David Cockburn says:

    While there are no doubt ‘techies’ who think that biology should be as simple and predictable as computer science, I don’t believe Andy Conrad is one of them. He’s run a lab and been at the sharp end of assay and drug development. The job of inspirational leadership is to keep the team focused on the goal while they overcome the inevitable problems along the way. That’s an important role as nothing gets done when we just listen to the nay-sayers.

  15. Mike C says:

    Perhaps the way to explain the Andy Groves Fallacy to solid state engineers is to make it clear that they have been focusing on designing their own systems, not repairing someone else’s, and ask them to try wearing that hat instead. To build on the earlier brain lesion = computer chip defect? post: Ask them what they would pour or inject into an ailing Atari 2600 to fix transistors in its CPU. Without turning off and rebooting the Atari that is, since that would be equivalent to killing the patient. No, they can’t reprogram it to stop using those particular transistors, and removing the 6502 so that you can tweak it with an AFM is akin to completely removing a human brain from the skull and spinal cord during surgery, so they are going to have to work it out in situ.

  16. MCS says:

    Can anyone point to any of these Google projects in the real world rater than a data center that has produced anything to justify the investment? And now we’re supposed to get flying cars, electric flying cars no less.

    What I see is an excuse for the “management” to use a huge pile of cash to fund today’s whim, while distracting the investors from the fact that they still haven’t found a better way to make money than the little blurbs at the top of a search page.

  17. steve says:

    All these comments are in the absence of any information with regard to the proposed technology. Maybe they have an idea based on GRAS (generally recognized as safe) components that don’t need animal testing. In the absence of information we shouldn’t be so confident in our pontifications. We’d like it to be true that computer techies can’t possibly understand our arcane ways but maybe (just maybe) they actually have something to contribute.

  18. C says:

    Hmm, I read the article with interest. Animal tests have done so well? How many people die each year from prescription drugs? I’ve had reactions to most drugs I was prescribed, never one from an herb, which just happened to have cured conditions that I was supposed to just “live with.” I’m not saying that happens to everyone — or that every herb is effective — but that’s what happened to me, who is stubborn enough to try different things until I find one that works. I also avoid eating anything that suffers from the bioaccumulation of all those medications and chemicals we release into the environment. So, I say, thank you Google for not testing on animals.

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