Google's mixed messaging about its healthcare plans

By Jonah Comstock
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JONAH_COMSTOCK_HEADSHOTOnce again, Google has captured the news cycle with the announcement of an ambitious, health-focused project. But although Google's health portfolio continues to grow, its handful of health projects are still little more than pet projects to the search giant.

As reported last week by The Wall Street Journal, the Google Baseline study will use a combination of genetic testing and digital health sensors to collect "baseline" data on healthy people. The idea is to establish genetic biomarkers relating to "how [patients] metabolize food, nutrients and drugs, how fast their hearts beat under stress and how chemical reactions change the behavior of their genes."

The study, which is starting with 175 patients at an undisclosed clinic, is in some ways a novel approach to healthcare. It takes full advantage of some relatively recent developments: the current low price of sequencing a genome and the capacity of digital health sensors to collect 24/7 real-world health data. Because of these two advancements, Google is able to create a healthcare study focused solely on well patients, which could produce data on the nuances of the human body's normal functionality that doctors have never had before.

"With any complex system, the notion has always been there to proactively address problems," Dr. Andrew Conrad, the product lead for the Baseline project at Google, told the Journal. "That's not revolutionary. We are just asking the question: If we really wanted to be proactive, what would we need to know? You need to know what the fixed, well-running thing should look like." 

The sensors used in the study will be wearable devices developed in house by Google, according to the Journal. This could include Google's in-development glucose-sensing contact lenses. It's also possible that the devices being developed could intersect down the road with Google Fit, Google's recently announced health data aggregator software. If the Journal got it right, it's a bit bizarre that Google is reinventing the wheel and only using heart-sensing and pulse ox wearables its developing in-house.

Like the Google contact lens, this project comes out of Google X, a semisecret Google facility focused on developing "moonshot" projects -- high-risk endeavors that aren't likely to produce a return on investment for a long time, if at all. And like both the contact lens and Calico, a separate Google venture aimed at prolonging the human lifespan, Google has been careful to emphasize that this is the beginning of a long road.

But even as more and more Google healthcare projects -- potentially big, game-changing healthcare projects -- come to light, the company's top execs continue to downplay their involvement in the sector. It was just last month that co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin told prominent digital health investor Vinod Khosla that they didn't see Google ever becoming a healthcare company.

"Generally, health is just so heavily regulated," said Brin, who oversees the Google X lab. "It’s just a painful business to be in. It’s just not necessarily how I want to spend my time. Even though we do have some health projects, and we’ll be doing that to a certain extent. But I think the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs."

Brin is a major investor in 23andMe, a company that has intimate experience with the frustrations of FDA regulation: the company had to halt the bulk of its operations late last year in the face of an FDA directive and still hasn't been able to resume those services. It's no wonder Brin is cautious about regulation in the healthcare space.

That said, Google has met with the FDA about the contact lens project, and its recently announced partnership with Novartis suggests a higher level of confidence that the lenses will be a real commercial product. The Khosla conversation and Google's actions seem to present a bit of a mixed message about Google's focus on healthcare.

It may be that Google is focusing on the far-flung in healthcare in the hopes that by the time these products are ready for market the regulatory environment will have become more navigable and more friendly to Silicon Valley-style innovation. Brin and Page told Khosla the company isn't interested in healthcare as a core offering right now, because of the burden of regulation. But Conrad offered the flip-side of that declaration in his interview with the Journal.

"We shouldn't put a slash through our mission statement and say that health care is excluded," he said.