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An Old Problem at Verily

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.

 

22 comments on “An Old Problem at Verily”

  1. Chemist turned Banker says:

    The beatings will continue until morale improves! I think they may be learning that the language of Mother Nature is a little more complex than C#…

    1. Anon says:

      Ha! I’m not sure whether “Chemist turned Banker” did it intentionally, but accusing someone at Google of programming in C# is the ultimate insult!

  2. bhip says:

    Things that should be stitched on pillows adorning the C-suites in Pharma/Biotech:
    1- “Nature cannot be browbeaten (or massaged for that matter)”.
    2- “Intimidation is the opposite of leadership”.
    3- “A successful d*** is still a d****”.

  3. Skeptic says:

    Important lesson to be found in this. For all the disparaging comments that are made about management at big pharma companies, bad CEOs/managers abound in startups too. You don’t hear about it as much because if you went on Glassdoor to rant about the CEO of your 15 person company it probably wouldn’t take long to figure out who you were.

  4. Barry H Levine says:

    among the tasks of a successful boss are recruitment, retention and succession. If he/she makes it hard to get and keep the talent on which a research organization lives, he/she fails. The failure to raise up a successor doesn’t manifest as quickly, but it is also a failure mode.

  5. bad wolf says:

    “We have to understand the ‘why’ of what people do,” Conrad said. “A philosopher might be as important as a chemist.”

    hahahahahhahah

    Guess i know where not to send my CV then.

    1. HFM says:

      I don’t know about that. Solving problems is great, but solving the right problems is better, especially if you’re the “moonshot” startup with a dump-truck full of Google money and a mandate to create new markets. (For instance, a few competent marketing types could have prevented the expensive misadventures into inhaled insulin.)

    2. oldnuke says:

      Philosophers may be helpful to a sustainability effort, if only you could harness all of the hot air, carbon dioxide, and frantic arm-waving.

      🙂

    3. Curious Wavefunction says:

      I think that’s a good point though. It’s not so much about bonafide philosophers as it’s about philosophical thinking that can provide insights into emergent, non-linear systems. There needs to be someone who can occasionally step back and look at the big picture and ask the right questions. We do need at least some of those kinds of people in a complex field like drug discovery where not everything can be measured or reduced to first principles. David Hawkins who was Oppenheimer’s assistant at Los Alamos was a philosopher, and he wrote one of the best accounts of both the science and the philosophy of the Manhattan Project.

  6. Curious Wavefunction says:

    The head of Verily seems to embody many of the qualities which are opposite to those evidenced by great scientific managers like Max Perutz, Robert Oppenheimer, Mervin Kelly and Peter Medawar.

    These people never treated junior researchers as inferior and dispensable in project meetings, never imposed project and deadlines on them and generally let them be by themselves, intervening only in times of crisis or to provide direction. Perutz in particular created a real atmosphere of bon homie at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge. He joined postdocs for tea and lunch, taking a lively and light interest in their work.

    I feel sorry for the existing and departing members of Verily. However clearly the problem is one bad apple, so in theory it should be easy to fix.

  7. Mark Thorson says:

    Measure twice, cut once.

    Where I used to work there was a variant on this saying. “Measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with an ax.”

  8. Morten G says:

    Hey Derek, draw up a phase diagram with “management pressure” on one of the axes and you can set up a management consulting biz!

  9. pete says:

    Worth noting that besides the gottahaveitnow-style-of-leadership, another phenotype particularly anathema to fruitful science collaboration is leadership by the ‘mercurial genius’. Y’know: the one whose mind gets bored easily. Don’t know this gentleman but it would appear that he fit the role, at least in his own mind.

  10. J. Peterson says:

    I suspect that sort of pressure to get results also helps fill the pages of Retraction Watch?

  11. J Severs says:

    I wonder how Conrad will respond when patients skip visits, violate protocol, drop out early, etc, as some do in the clinical trials.

  12. steve says:

    Send them a copy of holocracy http://holacracybook.com

    1. bartleby says:

      “Rule by the (a**)holes”? Well shucks, at my company we’re already doing that.

  13. Polony says:

    This type of behaviour is commonplace but not universal by any means. I have had experience with Oxford Nanopore (a small British start-up in the next-gen sequencing business) where the type of behaviour described was very much in evidence. The CTO and his lackeys were the main culprits there, the Glassdoor comments have a common thread that bears out my point. I subsequently moved to a different start-up in the same sector and had a completely different and very positive experience. Goes to prove that being driven does not necessarily entail Conrad-esque behaviour.

  14. milkshake says:

    This reminds me 5 stages of a project (but we used to tell this old joke under communism…)

    1. The problem of growth
    2. The growth of problems
    3. A promotion for the culprits
    4. Scapegoating the innocent
    5. “Mission Accomplished” ceremony for the non-participants

  15. Mandrake says:

    A pack of hipsters trying to do drug design and life science research. I think they should just stick to the HTML and organically grown coffee beans

  16. UudonRock says:

    Unfortunately this is a common occurrence in my experience, and not exclusive to any industry. In the past working as an R&D specialist I was given orders for prototypes on the scale of several thousand and expected to fill those orders in less than 24 hours. Let me tell you what electroless plating can’t do… I now work in research at a large hospital in north-eastern America. I have in the last year been assaulted by an avalanche of clinical trial work from a notable pharma with demands along the same lines. Let me tell you what qPCR can’t do… Different job, same old industry.

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