Stat has a very interesting report on what’s going on at one of Google’s biomedical companies, Verily Life Sciences. They get right down to it in the opening:
Google’s brash attempt to revolutionize medicine as it did the Internet is facing turbulence, and many leaders who launched its life sciences startup have quit, STAT has found.
Former employees pointed to one overriding reason for the exodus from Verily Life Sciences: the challenge of working with CEO Andrew Conrad.
And that challenge, it seems, is one that some readers here may have faced at one time or another. This, unfortunately, is not an unknown phenotype in this business:
Former employees, however. . .said he exaggerates what Verily can deliver, launches big projects on a whim, and rashly diverts resources from prior commitments to the next hot idea that might bring in revenue. This has led to what they describe as difficult meetings with business partners, and resignations by demoralized engineers and scientists in the face of seemingly impossible demands.
The company, which has been quiet about what it’s up to, is apparently working on things like real-time diagnostics and monitoring, robotic surgical tools, and more. The diagnostic nanoparticle idea I wrote about here is apparently one of their mandates, for example. The article goes into detail about Andrew Conrad’s history, both in science and in business, and it appears that some others have found him difficult to work with. There aren’t too many details, though, about the issues mentioned in that quoted paragraph above, but I imagine that’s because specifics would allow the article’s sources to be identified, which I’m sure they’re not eager to have happen. There have been a number of people leaving Verily at all different levels, which provides some cover.
If that description of Conrad is accurate, he has (as mentioned) a number of kindred spirits. The impatient gotta-have-it-now manager is a well-known type in many businesses, but that sort of thing goes down especially poorly in early-stage R&D. It’s one thing to tell your employees to wake up and get with the program, but if you find yourself telling your experiments the same thing, then trouble is looming. Nature cannot be browbeaten.
And this sort of high-pressure attitude tends (for many people) to actually reduce their chances of having some new idea or inspiration to solve problems. There’s another one of those fine lines here: pressure, up to a point, can make a person or organization more creative and willing to try out things that otherwise might not get a hearing. But push that concept too far, and the pressure actually crowds out those ideas. If too much of your brain is occupied in “Oh God, what a fix we’re in” mode, you don’t have as much brainpower left to come up with the big lifesaving plan. Samuel Johnson’s line about when a man is to be hanged in a fortnight, that it concentrates his mind wonderfully, is only partly true. Sometimes it might, but other times it leaves him thinking of nothing but the waiting hangman.
You run into this problem when someone decides that if X amount of pressure makes people more creative, then 10X the pressure should make them ten times as creative, right? The situation is worsened when these ideas have to be shored up with experimental evidence before they can be acted on. One of the surest ways to set up poor experiments and to get shoddy data out of them is to rush, push, and force them. “Measure twice, cut once” really does apply in science. Personally, I still have impulses to run off and try the first thing that I think of when I’m working on a new idea, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. It really takes discipline to slow down a bit, think things through, and run the experiments that really need to be run. If the reports in this article about Verity are accurate, then they’re finding out that trying to do good experimental design while someone is berating you in a conference room or spraying you with angry messages until midnight about where the #$!% results are does not work out so well.