Yes, Google really IS interested in gene mapping

May 24, 2007, 12:55 AM UTC
Fortune

The tsk-tsking over Google’s (GOOG) investment in 23andMe, a new company started by Sergey Brin’s new wife, Anne Wojcicki, is rather amusing. And a bit annoying. Who really cares how Google invests a few million dollars, especially when it jumps through hoops such as Brin recusing himself from the conversation and Google disclosing that board member Art Levinson is CEO of Genentech (DNA), a 23andMe investor?

Wojcicki could have avoided the circus altogether simply by not taking Google’s money. But that’s the point people seem to be missing. Google is genuinely interested in the topic, which is getting all that information about the human genome into its database. In his 2005 book, The Google Story, David Vise reports a passage that rings true now:

Over dinner and plenty of wine in February 2005, Sergey Brin discussed the prospects for genetics and Google with the maverick biologist Dr. Craig Venter … Brin had brought along his friend Anne Wojcicki, a health care investor whose sister is a senior executive at Google. Seated nearby was early Google investor Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.

Vise goes on to report that Venter tells him he wants to access Google’s massive computer network and that “Google will build up a genetic database, analyze it, and find meaningful correlations for indidviduals and populations.” Sounds somewhat similar to what Wojcicki’s company is doing, so it’s not a stretch to assume that she’s pursuing a portion of what they discussed and Google eventually will pursue the rest. Vise, who writes for the financial site Breakingviews.com, posted this today: “As wacky as it may sound, the investment may be justifiable, if not advisable. Pumping money into “23andme” fits with one of Google’s long-stated strategies to profit from the intersection of medicine and technology.” His full article, titled “Google’s bride,” can be found here

Interestingly, Venter has since disavowed Vise’s reporting (read about it here) and Google is mum on the subject. Venter will be a star attraction at Fortune‘s iMeme conference in July in San Francisco. Perhaps we’ll get an opportunity to discuss this with him then.