Google Invests in Startups That Use Data to Disrupt Medicine

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Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) has built a reputation on innovation, and as one of the most valuable companies in the world, it brings its own vision of the future to the process of investing in startups and small companies. Recently, the company has made headlines for investing heavily in health startups. Re/code spoke to Bill Maris, someone who is involved in the decision-making process at Google Ventures. As a managing partner at Google Ventures, Google’s investment arm, Maris describes his job as “kind of a judge at a science fair,” according to the publication. Maris is in part responsible for the investments that the company has made in a wide range of health startups like 23andMe, Adimab, DNANexus, Doctor on Demand, Foundation Medicine, Flatiron Health, iPierian, One Medical Group, Predilytics, Rani Therapeutics, SynapDX, and Transcriptic.

Google’s investments focus on companies with a vision for applying advances in computer science — such as big data, cloud processing, and genomic sequencing — to improve diagnostics and health treatments. A smaller assortment of the startups that it’s helped to fund — 23andMe, DNA Nexus, Foundation Medicine, Flatiron Health — highlights Google’s focus on the potential for data to transform the business and practice of medicine. Maris told Re/code that Google’s focus on these startups stems from the company’s familiarity with the space and an understanding of where it’s going: “What we try to put into our practice is ‘invest in what we know,’ which is where health care meets technology. In some sense, almost all companies these days need to be big data companies.”

Here’s some context on what a few of Google’s investments are working on. 23andMe is a genetic testing startup that aims to “democratize genetic information,” co-founder Anne Wojcicki told SFGate. DNA Nexus provides cloud-based infrastructure to analyze and manage data on DNA. Foundation Medicine uses genetic sequencing to identify individualized treatments for cancer patients based on specific mutations. Flatiron Health connects doctors and cancer centers to share anonymized data via a cloud-based platform. Flatiron co-founder Nat Turner told The Wall Street Journal last week that the company got cancer centers to sign on by sharing the philosophy behind the software: “Give us your data, and our platform will make it valuable.”

Maris says these companies couldn’t have existed 10 or 15 years ago and herald a shift in the way that patients are treated. Rather than relying on a single doctor and his or her personal body of knowledge, patients will benefit from platforms that not only aggregate data but leverage technology’s new ability to uncover the genetic underpinnings of diseases like cancer. More than just big data companies, Maris says the health startups Google invests in are “data-informed companies that are trying to build businesses that are commercially important and, in this case, relevant to patients,” according to Re/code.

Maris says that Google Ventures’ investment into companies like Flatiron — which attempt to collect and organize data from disparate sources in order to make it universally accessible — runs parallel to the company’s own mission to organize and provide access to data and information. The company is not only investing in the product that each startup is creating, whether it’s a database, an analysis service or a data platform. Instead, Google is buying into the vision that each startup has for the future of healthcare, and that means dealing with speed bumps and sometimes roadblocks along the way.

The genetic testing startup 23andMe hit one of those roadblocks when the Food and Drug Administration ordered the company to stop marketing its “Personal Genome Service,” which tested saliva and returned a report on ancestry, along with 200 health reports indicating the risk of getting or carrying the mutation for an array of diseases. The company pared back the data provided to just raw genetic data and ancestry information and has now submitted for FDA approval a health report that would assess the risk for Bloom syndrome, according to Forbes.

Maris says that Google has faith in the 23andMe team not just because of the startup’s potential, but also because of the ways Google foresees the health industry being disrupted. “It’s inevitable that everyone will eventually be genetically sequenced because it’s going to be really important to their health care, to understanding their future and what they’re at risk for,” Maris said in his interview with Re/code. “If you believe that, then you believe that there’s probably a big business to be built here because someone has to deliver that information.”

For Google, investing in health startups is about more than giving money to a good cause. It’s about investing money in companies that have the potential to very quickly change the way that healthcare works and put the power of big data and genetic sequencing into the hands of doctors and their patients. As Maris and Google see it, investing in drugs and treatments is an undue risk, because the ability of data to disrupt the health industry is a sure thing. And as Maris told Re/code, “Medicine needs to come out of the Dark Ages now” and catch up to the technology world’s aspiration to make important data accessible to everyone.

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