October 23, 2015
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
As Google Inc., soon to be Alphabet, continues its push into life sciences, observers are noting that many successful life science researchers and executives are joining those companies and others like it.
On Sept. 16, Google’s Life Sciences, the first of Google’s “moonshot” companies to stand alone under the Alphabet umbrella, announced that Thomas Insel, formerly the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, would be joining Life Sciences to leads its efforts into understanding, diagnosing, and treating mental illness.
Jessica Mega, formerly at Harvard Medical School, joined as the company’s chief medical officer in May. She initially left Harvard and the Brigham and Women's Hospital to head Google X’s Baseline Study, which was designed “to understand what it means to be healthy, down to the molecular and cellular level.”
Mega told Nature, “What I find compelling is the immersion of people with strong technology backgrounds — hardware and software engineers — sitting next to people like myself. The impact feels very, very large.”
Which may indeed be the appeal — as well as the significant pay increase successful Silicon Valley tech companies offer over academia. Companies like Google and Apple (AAPL) are setting ambitious goals, often with wide-open avenues of approach, and providing the finances and resources to go after them.
Brian Otis, who was a tenured professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, joined Google in 2012 to work on the “smart” contact lens that Life Sciences has developed with Alcon Laboratories, Inc. (ACL), a division of Novartis (NVS). Otis notes that the project basically asked two big questions: could the electronics be embedded in a contact lens, and could it accurately measure glucose levels. Everything came down to: figure out a way to get there.
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“If I come into Google Life with these questions,” Otis told Nature, “I have the entire runway and resources to answer these two questions.”
But don’t forget the money. “They’re continuously being recruited away,” said Euan Ashley of Stanford University to Nature. “We’re in competition with Google and other tech companies, and generally they can pay a lot more than Stanford can.”
Google and companies like Apple, which developed a ResearchKit in March, which is a framework that allows researchers to write apps to collect data from patients’ mobile phones, are not only recruiting, but partnering with other companies and researchers.
“They’re reaching out to academia in a way that biotechnology companies often don’t,” Judith Campisi of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Calif. told Nature. This allows researchers to collaborate with the companies instead of jumping ship and working for them directly.
Google’s Calico is focused on controlling lifespan and other age-related diseases, including neurodegeneration and cancer. The company inked a deal with Chicago-based AbbVie (ABBV) in September. It has also developed partnerships with AncestryDNA in Provo, Utah, which is owned and operated by Ancestry.com DNA, LLC, a subsidiary of Ancestry.com. It also has entered into agreements with the Buck Institute of Research on Aging, and licensed technology from Peter Walter, a professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) .
Although some scientists would find joining a high-tech company exciting, others might prefer to continue to pursue their own work and interests in academia without the volatility that a commercial company has. It will be interesting to see if, once the various spinoff companies from Google like Life Sciences and Calico depend less on Google’s funding and have to develop commercial products, they will start to rein in the scope of their research to focus on commercially viable products.