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New details on Google’s anti-aging startup

October 9, 2013, 6:43 PM UTC
Google Reports Quarterly Earnings
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - JANUARY 30: A sign is posted on the exterior of Google headquarters on January 30, 2014 in Mountain View, California. Google reported a 17 percent rise in fourth quarter earnings with profits of $3.38 billion, or $9.90 a share compared to $2.9 billion, or $8.62 per share one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

Google (GOOG) last month made waves in the biotech world by announcing the formation of Calico, a “new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” It would be led by ex-Genentech CEO Art Levinson – a bit of a surprising move given that Levinsohn effectively left the Google board several years ago so that he could remain chairman at rival Apple (where he will continue to serve).

Beyond that, nada. So I did a bit of digging while in Silicon Valley last week, and have learned much more.

Calico is considered the brainchild of Bill Maris, the Google Ventures managing partner who once was a biotech portfolio manager at Investor AB. Sources says that Maris looked at the life sciences landscape, and saw hundreds of companies all focused on curing or minimizing various diseases and conditions. In all cases, the goal was either to prolong life and/or improve the quality of life.

What didn’t exist, however, were companies focusing on the root cause of so much of this disease and death. Namely, that we all keep getting older. Or, put another way, that our bodies begin to fail on a cellular level – largely due to degradation of our genetic materials.

Now that the entire genome had been coded, Maris wondered if it was possible to actually study the genetic causes of aging and then create drugs to address them (a question that was heavily influenced by talks with futurist and Googler Ray Kurzweil). For example, what if you examined the genomes of thousands of healthy 90 year-olds from all parts of the world? What genetic similarities do they have? Or, perhaps, what happens to most of us that didn’t happen to them. Even if this didn’t result in longer life, it perhaps could at least lead to an improved quality of life for folks on the back nine.

So Maris began raising money, largely from wealthy tech executives and venture capitalists. Some of those who got the pitch said that Maris gave a genie analogy (which I’ll paraphrase): If a genie gave you three wishes, your first wish would be for a million more wishes. But our lives are like those three wishes. We don’t know if it’s three days or three thousand, but we know it’s finite. If you have to invest in anything, shouldn’t it be in trying to get more days (or at least more quality days).

One of those Maris called on was Google co-founder and director of special projects Sergey Brin, who expressed interest in investing. But as conversations progressed between Brin, Maris and Google CEO Larry Page, a consensus began to form that the best course of action would be to fund the entire project off of Google’s balance sheet (the board would later agree). I have heard various numbers as to the exact Google commitment, but for now can only really say that we’re talking about a minimum of hundreds of millions (tranched out, of course). The company itself still isn’t commenting, although it’s possible that there will be some specifics in its next quarterly earnings report (due next week).

As for management, Maris is said to have originally thought about helping to run the new company, while also maintaining his Google Ventures role (kind of a Jack Dorsey sort of thing). But he also reached out to various folks to get names for prospective CEOs. Among those from whom he sought advice was Art Levinson, who surprisingly threw his own hat into the ring (and would have been the obvious choice for this sort of thing, if everyone hadn’t viewed him as permanently retired from the C-suite).

Levinson already has begun interviewing people for positions at Calico, which some in the Valley are viewing as more of a long-term research institute than a biopharma startup that will be in clinical trials within a couple of years. As more people begin to work at Calico (or at least try to), we’ll likely learn more about it.

For now, however, what we know is that the effort is very well-funded with more flexibility than most big pharma, and that it was appealing to a wide swath of respected investors before Google swept in. Plus, it’s led by someone who most other life sciences companies would have given their left lab to hire. Not a bad start…

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