B is for biotech: Alphabet, and its search for life science glory

While you’re searching for, statistically speaking, cat videos, Alphabet’s venture arm GV is searching for life sciences companies that are working on new ways to help people live longer.

The California-based GV, formerly Google Ventures, which was launched in 2009 and has around $2.4 billion under management, started off with a Silicon Valley approach, but is now increasingly looking to add bio to tech.

It has its fingers in many pies, and its money is going toward work on a range of conditions, from cancer and stem cells and autoimmune diseases, to making clinical trials (as well as medicines) better and easier, editing and profiling your genes, and also using a new way to help combat infections.

Google/Alphabet, which started out in a garage in the late 1990s, runs its own biotech-focused companies, but much like Big Pharma’s venture arms, GV has been looking to early-stage life science startups to seek out and help nurture the latest innovations in medicine.

It’s already had a busy year, starting off in January with funding for an extended Series A for BlackThorn Therapeutics, which is working on a candidate for neurobehavioral disorders, and in the last week injected millions into three separate companies: Arsanis, Science 37 and Magenta.

Arsanis designs and develops monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), typically seen for use in cancer, to stop serious infections, while Science 37, a clinical trial provider, is looking to reimagine the idea of a study by forging a new “metasite” or “siteless” model that is deisgned to boost recruitment and retention.

It also just this week led Magenta Therapeutics’ $50 million Series B round, helping fund its work in the latest stem cell science to reboot the immune system for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and genetic blood disorders.

Some of GV’s larger legacy investments include with Editas Medicine, the gene editing biotech that is working on CRISPR, and Foundation Medicine, which is working on genetic profiles for tumors. In 2013, it also joined a Series B round for Rani Therapeutics that is making oral versions of typically injected therapies.

And the investments have been ramping up. Last Februrary, it got involved in a chunky $75 million Series A for Stanford's immuno-oncology spinout Forty Seven, and its work on anti-CD47 antibody Hu5F9-G4. And last fall, GV led an investment round in Arcus Biosciences which is working on new approaches and combos in immuno-oncology.

A few months later, in October, GV popped up again, funnelling funds into Carrick Therapeutics and its $95 million (€85 million) Series A, helping to fuel its ambition to grow into Europe’s leading oncology company.

It has a lot of shots on goal when it comes to its investments and it has been spreading its wings much further than in companies with a tech/data-biology crossover, which you might logically expect, into “hardcore” science-based biotechs.

GV is spread across a number of sectors, but its life science unit is led by Krishna Yeshwant, a physician, programmer, and entrepreneur (with medical and business degrees from Harvard) who has been working with GV since its inception eight years ago. His experience and training is across both computer science and medicine.

Neuroscientist Bill Maris, who had headed up this unit, stepped away last year, and has since been plotting a new life science fund of his own (although this has seemingly been beset with issues). Yeshwant appears however to be continuing on Maris’ legacy, if the past week is anything to go by.

The tech giant also has its own internal hopes in several companies, with Google Life Sciences, now Verily (graduating from its secretive Google X division), last year joining forces with GlaxoSmithKline to create a new JV in bioelectronics, called Galvani Bioelectronics, which is 55% owned by GSK and 45% by Verily.

The company already had the attention of a number of Big Pharmas, with other tie-ups with Sanofi in diabetes and already signing a JV with J&J to create a company known as Verb Surgical, which aims to make new kinds of robotic surgical systems. It also has a deal with Dexcom that has seen the two publicly declare their ambition to launch a mini glucose monitor by 2018.

And then there is Calico, the life sciences company which is working on ageing, and has too been setting up deals with biotechs, the most recent of which is with upstart and Fierce 2016 winner C4 Therapeutics, helping it tackle protein degradation.

The Bay Area Calico, run by Genentech, Apple and Google vet Art Levinson Ph.D., has also previously struck a two-pronged deal with California’s QB3 to explore the science of longevity and age-related diseases, and teamed up with Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute to collaborate on discovery-stage research. It’s working with AbbVie on an R&D project that could cost as much as $1.5 billion.

But, there are problems. We don’t really know what Calico does, and it doesn’t really want you to know what it does. We know it has a focus on aging given that its (rather sparse) website has named its mission as wanting to: “Harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan.” But we know little outside of that, and many other publications (including this one) have hit a stonewall when trying to talk to them.

Even in its deals, we learn little – with C4, for instance, the five-year pact is aimed at: “Treating diseases of aging, including cancer,” but the company’s execs told me they “would not be disclosing details of the targets we’ll be jointly exploring.”

When I interviewed C4 about the deal back in March in the hopes of gaining some insight into Calico (which did not want to be interviewed), all they could tell me was that: “The plan is to collaborate closely between our two companies.”

Verily has been a little more open, and I managed to get an interview with its chief technology officer Brian Otis last year, after its GSK pact, but substance and the nitty gritty of how they work and what they do was thin on the ground.

STAT has over the past year (much like it has with RNA biotech Moderna Therapeutics and NantHealth owner Patrick Soon-Shiong) criticized Verily, claiming dissatisfaction from staff with the CEO Andrew Conrad, with others also questioning the company’s biology knowledge.

When I asked Otis about this, he was “glad [I] brought that up,” but only told me how great it was to work there.

Novartis and (what is now) Verily in fact joined forces a few years back to work on a so-called smart lens, an autofocusing lens for people with presbyopia, or far-sightedness, with work also ongoing on another that measures blood glucose levels in diabetes patients.

But work on this has now been delayed, as reported by Fortune late last year; as it turns out, the combination of bio and tech is much harder to achieve than first thought. This will likely push back its 2019 launch date, a date first touted by Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez back in 2014. It also comes as reports suggest that Novartis is in fact mulling over selling off its entire Alcon eye unit.

Reality bites when it comes to biotech investments, and risk is inherent; it’s difficult to shake the feeling that some within Alphabet/GV/Verily/Calico have a “let’s smash disease” mentality, believing that you can “disrupt” cancer, or ageing, and that can easily engineer out of the confines of biology with blue sky thinking. If you can disrupt the taxi industry, for instance, then why not medicine?

But, as with Uber, things don’t always go to plan, and biology has and will continue to prove one of the toughest obstacles to human endeavour.

And overall, GV’s investments have been dwindling, seeing around half of the investments of 2014 than those made in 2015, although it still appears to have a strong desire to help younger biotechs. And for these early-stage upstarts, GV, Verily and Calico are dreams come true, with almost endless investment potential and the PR boost it gains by having the Google name attached to it.