Some not-very-flattering stories have run about how things have been going at Google’s Verily life-sciences startup. For some time, they’ve been making big pronouncements about all their transformative technologies (tricorders! glucose-sensing contact lenses!), but actually turning any of these things into working products has been a bit more difficult than giving interviews about them and issuing press releases.
Here’s an update from Bloomberg Businessweek: the company has started a very large scale project to collect a baseline data set in 10,000 patients. They’re raking in as much biometric data as possible, hoping to assemble more medical information about a set of healthy volunteers than anyone has ever had before and use it to guide its product research and look for opportunities. I have no problem with that – as long as their signal/noise is solid enough, they have a chance of finding some interesting and useful things. But this doesn’t sound like the company that everyone was writing about:
While that sounds ambitious, it’s much more modest than the missions Verily promoted when it was officially part of Google. Years ago, the biotech division promised projects such as glucose-monitoring contact lenses and all-in-one medical scanners; those remain in the lab. Former employees say the internal code name for the life sciences division was Panacea—cure-all. That’s over.
“We grew up,” says Verily Chief Executive Officer Andy Conrad. The middle-aged geneticist has adopted the Silicon Valley T-shirt-and-flip-flops wardrobe of eternal youth, but he’s given up on a lot of the jargon, including Google’s onetime favorite word. Like some other Alphabet holdings, Verily has stopped talking about everything in terms of industry-changing “moonshots.” What next-generation technology requires in practical terms is “setting the goal and then getting down to the day-to-day practical drudgery,” Conrad says. “If you examine the real moonshot closely, you’ll see a dude whose job is to rivet and a lady whose job is to do some wiring.”
About the whole “tricorder” nanoparticle diagnostic thing (which first showed up in 2014), Conrad says that “Mother Nature defeated us wildly“. Now that’s the biopharma world that I know and that I’ve been working in, and I’m experiencing no small amount of schadenfreude to see someone else getting the treatment, too. This is the same Andy Conrad who told people (see that link in the first paragraph) that “We’ve done a lot, to be quite humble about it. Enough to give us great confidence that this is all likely to work” and that there was no need to test this kind of thing in animals, since it was so solid. In fact, the people in their Baseline Study (if you believe some of Conrad’s pronouncements) were all supposed to be walking around wearing these things.
What they’re actually wearing is the Verily Study Watch, which from what I can see is mostly tracking movement and cardiovascular data. That is, it’s a larger, more powerful (and presumably more reliable) tracker of the sort that all sorts of other people are selling, both as standalones and as apps for smartphones. It’s not that useful data can’t be obtained from such a device, but it ain’t no tricorder, neither. The tricky part is that you’re going to have to go out and get that big heap of data before you can say if there’s anything actionable in it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad that Verily is doing this study, because not many people would, and there could be interesting results. But interesting results are not guaranteed. They might get a big ol’ baseline of things that don’t surprise anyone at all; that’s the risk.
It’s going to be interesting to see if Conrad himself (and those who think along the same lines) has actually been humbled by his Verily experience, or if he’s saving up for another round of big declarations once things start to work a little. This behavior is one of the things that irritates non-Silicon-Valley types in health care the most, the “Step aside and let the disruptive world-changers do their thing, Pops” stuff. It’s a long way from Conrad’s earlier vision-tastic interviews to tracking heart rates and sleep schedules for the next four years. But that Businessweek article sums it up with a quote from former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, who’s saying the same thing I’ve said around here for years now: “At times, Silicon Valley people are very naive about the complexity of health care. . .It’s going to be a lot harder than they think.”