Verily chief tech officer talks GSK, Google and why biology must meet technology

As the Alphabet ($GOOG) subsidiary Verily announced a major $715 million, 7-year research deal with GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) this week--which sees the two create a new JV company called Galvani Bioelectronics--FierceMedicalDevices’ Ben Adams speaks to its chief technology officer Brian Otis about how this deal will shape the company’s future, and the future of medicine.

FierceMedicalDevicesUnder the JV with GSK, what are you specifically working on, and what are your timelines? I know GSK has already said it wants to start trials on its implantable devices by 2017 in autoimmune and metabolic diseases, so is the plan for you to help with that?

Brian Otis: The best way to think about what the complementary expertise will look like when it comes to who’s doing what is by looking at a couple of the bigger things we need to do at Galvani. One is to figure out a better map for what these neural circuits actually are that are flowing through the body, and understanding what the differences are between the healthy state and disease state. There are a couple of different ways that needs to be looked at, i.e., through the anatomy--understanding where in the human body should these therapies go, and what will these signals actually look like. And also, what are the signals and the processing needed to actually decode these signals and modify them to restore healthy organ function?

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GSK is bringing a lot of the expertise in that department. On the Verily side, we need to be at the forefront of medical device technology to make these miniaturized devices, and there are a couple of different elements to this. If you think well OK, there is the electronics--and that’s true, we need to have very low power, integrated circuitry to do this--but there is also the need for it to be biocompatible in precision nerve interfacing.

Importantly, that signal processing that we need to understand about the body, we need to be able to execute on that in real time to listen to that data; interpret it; extract knowledge from it; and then feedback the appropriate signals, again all in real time. So getting that signal processing integrated and getting the results are really important, and Verily is working on that as well.

FMDWhere are we, in the bigger scheme of things, of a proof of concept that this bioelectronic tech can have a therapeutic benefit in chronic diseases? That’s part of what you will be testing with GSK in diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) of course, but when do you envision being able to come out with clear, clinical data that it works?

Otis: Well you know Ben, that’s something that I am extremely excited about, especially now as GSK and Verily are coming together, as we will have a big head start in this area. GSK has been working on looking at some of these proof-of-concept efforts for a number of years now [GSK has been working and investing in bioelectronics since 2012], and rheumatoid arthritis is actually a great example of that. On the Verily side, for over four years now, and with Google/Alphabet, we’ve been working on miniaturized, biocompatible electronics for application, so we’re going to immediately bring all that to the problem.

But on the RA side, there have been recent, extremely positive results in published scientific literature, about being able to stimulate the peripheral nervous system and witness a meaningful and significant improvement in disease markers. Things like that give a very strong reason to believe that it’s possible. And again, RA is an important one, but that’s one of very many different disease areas that we’re going to be investigating in this partnership.

FMDIndeed, and one of the others will be metabolic diseases, so diabetes for instance. What data have you got about how bioelectronic tech would work in that therapy area. If you could “disrupt” diabetes in that way, it would be a whole new method of treating the disease.

Otis: Exactly. The thing that’s interesting about that is of course that Verily has been working diligently on different technologies in diabetes. So our continuous glucose monitoring project that we have with Dexcom, which is going extremely well, and our contact lens monitoring glucose with Novartis. We also have a program on diabetes management with Sanofi, so we are to say the least very interested in seeing what we can do with people who have metabolic diseases. This is again one of the reasons that we’re so excited about this partnership with GSK. We have of course some ways to go; we need to do all of the proof-of-principle work, but I am extremely optimistic that it will yield results.

FMDOn this business side, how does it now work with you and Alphabet? Does this deal take you further away from the parent company?

Otis: Verily remains a wholly owned subsidiary of Alphabet, and we of course collaborate very closely and deeply with Alphabet and Google on things like data handling, and the cloud, and everything else.

FMDOK, so does Alphabet/Google have any kind of access to what you will be doing with GSK, as well as with Novartis, Sanofi and Dexcom, in terms of big data handling/curation, or other areas?

Otis: The partnerships are extremely deep between Verily and Alphabet/Google, so as you can imagine we work very closely with them. That’s actually one of the beautiful things about being where we are because that allows us to tap into the huge amount of talent at Google on the software and data side.

FMDI’m sure STAT isn’t your favorite news outlet at the moment after it ran a series of articles claiming dissatisfaction from staff with the CEO Andrew Conrad, with others also questioning your company’s biology knowledge. Is this deal with GSK your way of moving beyond these criticisms, given that a Big Pharma has chosen you to take its new therapy area forward and possibly onto the market?

Otis: Actually you know I’m really glad you brought that up. This has been such an amazing place to work. If you don’t mind me getting a little personal here, I was a tenured professor at the University of Washington for 7 years before coming to Google and Verily, and that was really my dream job. I loved it, and I love academia, and it was great. But being able to come to Google and to Verily; to have access to this talent; to be able to take this vision and run with it, and to be able to hire the types of people who we hire here; well, this is truly my dream job and, if you take a step further, and look at this collaboration with GSK, many people on the team are interested in bioelectronics and for them, this really is their dream project too. To be able to work on that with them, well it is amazing. So, this is a great place to work, despite what might have been said, and I’m really excited about how it’s going.

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GSK and Google’s Verily create $715M joint venture in bioelectronics