On September 18th, Google announced the launch of its most ambitious venture yet; tackling the aging process of the human body. California Life Company, or Calico, will be led by Arthur Levinson, current Chairman of Genentech and Apple, and promises to try and “improve millions of lives.”
The project is ambitious, and certainly a far cry from what the technology giant is known for. However, Larry Page and Google have regularly tried to push forward into new frontiers – funding electric cars, augmented reality glasses, and even asteroid mining. But what, exactly, can we learn from Google and Page’s previous undertakings?
The most obvious comparison to make is with Google Health. A service for storing personal health information, similar to Microsoft’s HealthVault, it was supposed to merge medical records with a variety of partners to allow for a centralised, integrated profile. Google Health launched in 2008, yet was discontinued as of January 2012, Google’s cited reason being that it did not “create the impact we wanted.”
Although the project was a failure, proponents of Calico can still be upbeat. The new enterprise is focused on long-term goals, whereas Google Health was clearly aimed at the more immediately reachable target of creating an empowered user base in control of their own medical history. Expecting short-term definitive results from a project whose goal is to combat death would be a bit inflexible, to say the least.
There have also been other recent closures. Google Reader, a RSS interface that was still popular with a large base of power users, was discontinued in July of this year. Although the main reason given for the closure was the steady decline of membership, there have been reports that Page personally had no interest in continuing Reader – and because of this, no manager wanted to take on the project and move into an area that their own CEO saw as unessential.
Google Labs, too, was abandoned. A system to help promote, distribute and test prototype Google features to interested parties, it was eventually ceased in 2011 – soon after the announcement of Google Health’s closure – with Page citing a need for greater “focus” on areas of advancement.
Both Labs and Health closed soon after Page officially became CEO of Google, and tied in with a new Google strategy: “more wood behind fewer arrows.” This was, essentially, to put more support behind the projects that truly mattered. Will this include Calico? Is it a venture that Google will want to put time, effort, and money behind indefinitely? Or could it eventually become a project dropped in favour or something deemed more worthwhile in the future?
Perhaps hints can be found in Page’s other recent investments, all of which fall into the areas of future technology and humanitarian enterprise. There was, for instance, the high-profile investment in Makani Power, the research and development company aiming at creating airborne wind turbines to produce renewable energy. In 2013 it was taken into the fold of Google X, a division that has given us Google Glasses and is working towards the creation of self-driving cars and neural networks.
As an individual, Page has also made a series of private investments in future technology, including Tesla Motors, an electric car manufacturer. Then there is Planetary Resources Inc, a company with the aim of mining precious materials from asteroids. It sounds far-fetched, but so far the celebrity venture – other investors include Ross Perot Jr. and director James Cameron – has had great success, raising their target of $1 million from a Kickstarter campaign, and Planetary Resources Inc is currently planning for a launch in 2014, to test out technologies for their asteroid-locating satellite.
Given this continual, philanthropic strategy, can we be positive regarding Calico? Time will tell. Progress is unlikely to be apparent for decades, even with such a respected expert as Arthur Levinson on board as CEO. Google and Calico are exploring a revolutionary territory: precisely the sort of area that excites Page, but with many pitfalls and dangers of becoming a time – and money – sink. But given how different these recent projects are from those abandoned since Page took over Google’s reins, perhaps there is a long-term cause to celebrate. The Calico project is, after all, a noble one, and one with the potential to change the face of medical science.