'Painful' regulations keeping Google on the periphery of life sciences

Over the past few years, Google ($GOOG) has expanded into life sciences, with venture capital investments, the creation of Calico and development of "smart" contact lenses giving it multiple beachheads in the industry. But the search giant's co-founders have reservations about getting deep into healthcare, saying regulations make it a "painful" sector in which to work.

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page made the comments in a chat with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Having touched on labor markets, driverless cars and balloon-powered internet, the discussion turned to health. And while Brin and Page clearly see lots of potential for Google and tech more generally to improve drug development and patient care, talk of health becoming a pillar of its business appears premature.

"Health is just so heavily regulated. It's just a painful business to be in. It's just not necessarily how I want to spend my time," Brin said at an annual CEO summit hosted by Khosla. Google has started to become acquainted with the regulatory process in the U.S., meeting with the FDA to talk about the glucose-measuring contact lenses that are in development at the Google X unit overseen by Brin. After the meeting, Google said it was looking for partners with experience commercializing medical devices, again suggesting it wants to avoid handling regulatory negotiations itself.

If a company as wildly ambitious and well resourced as Google is deterred by health regulations, startups must be too. Page thinks this is a problem and used an example to illustrate his point. "Maybe when the medical researcher searches your data, you get to see which researcher searched it and why. I imagine that would save 10,000 lives in the first year. Just that. That's almost impossible to do because of HIPAA. I do worry that we regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end," Page said.

- read the interview transcript
- here's David Shaywitz's take