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Meet the Top Doctor at Google’s Medical Moonshot Arm

Apr 22, 2016

When the opportunity first came up, Dr. Jessica Mega, a star cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, couldn’t wrap her head around the idea of leaving these institutions to join Google (googl). Mega had always imagined pursuing her career in a hospital, not working shoulder-to-shoulder with twenty-something engineers.

But Mega, 41, was enticed by the crazy ambitions of Google’s medical moonshot, Verily, the life-sciences division that is now broadly tackling the intersection of health, data and research. And now Mega is Verily’s chief medical officer—with a major say in which medical problems the enterprise will tackle, and how.

Mega got to know Google after she got involved with steering large scale, 10,000-to-20,000 person medical trials, while also running the Brigham and Women’s genetics lab. When she realized that making sense of genetics was an overwhelming data problem, she reached out to people she knew at Google to think about how to better organize massive amounts of genomic information.

By 2014, when Google approached Mega about joining Verily, the former arm of Google X had already developed a smart contact lens that detected glucose levels in blood, partnering with pharmaceutical giants like Novartis (nvs)to manufacture the lenses. It had also launched a genetic data-collecting initiative, the Baseline Study, which aims to use some of the same algorithms that power Google’s famous search button to analyze what makes people healthy.

For more on the intersection of technology and health, read the feature "Can Sean Parker Hack Cancer?", from our May 1, 2016 issue.

“It started to make a lot of sense to me that physicians need to be working every day with engineers and scientists to solve these problems. So I took a leap of faith and now I'm here,” Mega said, sitting in Verily’s offices in Mountain View, Calif. Mega joined Verily in March 2015 as one of the first doctors it hired, and became the organization’s chief medical officer in August.

These days, Verily is looking less like a moonshot, and more like a real company. Under pressure from Wall Street, Google’s Larry Page borrowed from Berkshire Hathaway to create a holding company, Alphabet, last August. Divisions pursuing projects such as self-driving cars, internet-connected thermostats and medical solutions were spun off into their own fledgling businesses within Alphabet. In February, the holding company’s chief financial officer and newly appointed fiscal disciplinarian Ruth Porat revealed that Verily was one of the only one of these nascent businesses that was actually making money. Home appliance maker Nest, high-speed broadband Internet provider Fiber, and Verily together brought in $448 million in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015, though Alphabet does not break down that data unit by unit.

Verily primarily makes money through deals with medical and pharmaceutical companies, which pay the life sciences company for its expertise in analyzing data, building robots and sensors, and more. “The first big success story coming out of Google’s moonshots will be out of Verily and healthcare,” predicts James Cakmak, a technology analyst with firm Monness Crespi Hardt. “Nest and Fiber are struggling and underperforming. The first big windfall from moonshots group will come from healthcare.”

Mega initially was hired to oversee the Baseline study. But as chief medical officer, she oversees all of Verily’s partnerships and projects, vets all partners, and makes sure the right resources from Verily are devoted to each project—for example, making sure how many engineers, scientists and physicians should be working on a given assignment. She also works on identifying new health problems Verily should be tackling.

One of the newer centerpieces of Verily’s business is a deal with pharmaceutical giant Biogen to create better drugs for patients who have multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the nervous system.

Under Mega’s oversight, a Verily team is working with Brigham and Women’s Hospital on a research study with 2,000 MS patients. Each patient is outfitted with a miniature sensor placed on their wrist that looks a lot like a Fitbit, but is far more powerful in the types of things it can measure. In addition to tracking basic data like heart rate, the device can tell whether a patient is favoring the left or right side of their body. The sensor also measures the rhythm and strength of the patient’s heartbeat and will track a patient’s reactions to light and noise exposure. Verily then uses its computing power to analyze all of this data and look for signals or patterns that could help explain why some patients experience MS symptoms earlier, and how these symptoms could be prevented with drugs.

“What Verily is doing will advance the field by ten years within a two-year period,” said Dr. Tanuja Chitnis, who heads the study at the hospital. Verily’s biosensors are capturing data that has never been captured before, Chitnis explains, and Google’s analytics data prowess makes the data collection process faster.

Like many early-stage tech businesses, Verily is grappling with troubles in-house. Demanding work schedules, and issues with the leadership style of Andy Conrad have led to an exodus of talent from the organization, according to a recent STAT News article, which reported that a dozen top engineers and scientists have left Verily in the past year. (In a written response to queries about personnel issues, Mega said that “leadership, recruitment, and retention are strong at Verily” and that its staff more than doubled in 2015, adding, “The team at Verily is comprised of some of the most passionate and talented people that I have had the opportunity to work alongside.”)

Day to day, Mega says, her job is to make sure that Verily doesn’t get mired in myopic details, makes good decisions about what to do next. “Because, sure,” she says, “you can do many studies or partnerships but if it doesn't affect the care of an individual, at the end of the day is it really going to have traction? “We just have to be really thoughtful.”

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