With Google announcing a new venture into health care with the launch of Calico, soon after pulling the plug on Google Health, the company has signaled its intentions to be a player in the health care space. The appointment of Arthur D. Levinson, the Apple chairman and former CEO of Genentech, could make the venture well-positioned for success.
Levinson "has the strongest experience of the people Google trusts in this area so it makes sense for him to lead the effort," Rob Enderle, principal analyst for Enderle Group, told eWEEK in an email.
Calico, which stands for "California Life Company," will focus on the challenge of aging and associated diseases.
"It is interesting that Google is jumping back into the health care arena after burning its fingers with Google Health," John Moore, managing partner for Chilmark Research, told eWEEK in an email. "This actually looks like a far more serious endeavor as they have appointed a very senior and well-respected health care executive to lead Calico—something they never had done with Google Health."
Google Health was a personal health portal that gave way to competitors such as Microsoft HealthVault and Drchrono's OnPatient.
"Google Health was one attempt, albeit a weak one and poorly executed," Moore said. "Calico will likely look at a different entry point."
Calico shows that Google is taking the health care market seriously, Moore noted.
"It does signal some seriousness on Google's part to do something significant as it is highly unlikely that Levinson would join something that did not have strong senior executive backing and associated resources behind it," Moore said.
Google has been vague on what exactly Calico will do, though personalized medicine is a possibility, according to Moore.
"That's the million dollar question, and Google is not showing its hand just yet," Moore said. "With Levinson's background in biotech/pharma, I wouldn't be too surprised if the effort focused on genetics, disease and treatment/personalized medicine."
Google's decision to focus on aging was welcomed by tech industry insiders.
"The global health care challenges we're facing are complex, and it's significant that Google has made the shift to focus on new approaches for health, aging and senior care," Diane Hosson, director of security solutions at Stanley Healthcare, wrote in an email to eWEEK. "Google clearly sees an opportunity to use technology to impact peoples' lives, and its new focus will bring attention to this often-overlooked piece of the market."
The company could apply its expertise in search to bring better treatment to people as they age, according to Enderle. Google's anti-aging work could collect data in this area and focus on "nearer-term results," he said.
The "massive applied search" could result in treatments for the aging that only billionaires could afford, according to Enderle.
"Given search is at the core of Google, and Google hasn't exactly been a big believer in other's IP rights, my expectation is much of the initial effort will be to build solutions from other folks' research (unlicensed) that will be limited to the few and very powerful."
Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has also invested in biomedical research on aging, Enderle noted. His nonprofit Ellison Medical Foundation studies age-related diseases and disabilities, how aging affects the immune systems and what new approaches can be developed to fight diseases associated with aging.
Still, the Calico project could potentially pose a conflict for Levinson, Time reported.
In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission launched an inquiry to probe the presence of then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Levinson on both the boards of Apple and Google. Schmidt left Apple's board in August 2009, and Levinson resigned from Google's board that October.
"There is something about this that feels uncomfortable," said Lucy P. Marcus, CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting and an expert on corporate governance and board ethics, according to Time. "If there is no direct overlap between Calico and things that Apple is working on, then technically it's not a conflict of interest. If there is a conflict of interest, Levinson would have to step out of Apple's boardroom during those discussions."