Google hires ex-Genentech CEO to lead ambitious bio spinoff

Google ($GOOG) has played on the fringes of healthcare for years, investing in 23andMe, DNAnexus and other bio startups through its venture capital unit. Now it has set up its own biotech, outlined vague but wildly-ambitious goals, and hired ex-Genentech CEO Art Levinson to lead the company.

The biotech, called Calico, will focus on illness and aging, starting with a small number of employees researching new technologies, Time reports. More specific details are yet to emerge, but observers expect Calico to leverage Google's data-processing grunt. The results of this work may take a decade or two to emerge, with Google CEO Larry Page willing to take a long-term approach if it allows Calico to deliver significant improvements to human health. How significant? Bigger than curing cancer.

"One of the things I thought was amazing is that if you solve cancer, you'd add about three years to people's average life expectancy. We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that'll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it's very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it's not as big an advance as you might think," Page told Time.

The ambition is in line with Page's belief that Google should aim for more than just incremental gains. This attitude appears to have helped bring Levinson on board, with the former-Genentech CEO saying he was inspired by Page's push for "outsized improvements." Levinson, who will continue as chairman of Genentech and Apple ($APPL), has invested in Calico and brings biotech credentials to Page's grand vision. "For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking. Art is one of the crazy ones who thinks it doesn't have to be this way," Apple CEO Tim Cook said.

- read the Time feature
- here's Page announcing Calico
- and Google's release