Ex-FDA chief Robert Califf to help lead health policy at Google, Verily full-time

After serving as an adviser there for over two years, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf is moving to Google’s parent, Alphabet, in a full-time capacity. He’ll help oversee the healthcare endeavors of the tech giant as well as the work of its sister company, Verily.

According to a post from Califf’s longtime home at the Duke University School of Medicine, the former vice chancellor of data sciences will serve as Alphabet’s new head of medical strategy and policy, effective Nov. 18.

Outside of his two-year stint at the FDA during the Obama administration—as both commissioner and deputy commissioner of the agency’s Office of Medical Products and Tobacco—Califf has spent more than 35 years in leadership roles at his alma mater, plus more in training and fellowship programs. His career at Duke, in addition to a named professorship in cardiology, has been entwined with data science and outcomes research.

Califf served as the founding director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, one of the world’s largest academic research organizations. After returning from the FDA in 2017, he helped launch and lead the university’s health data science center, Duke Forge, which aims to develop tools and partnerships that translate insights into actionable programs. Elsewhere, Califf has been a long-time advocate for breaking down research and data silos.

“We chose a name that would capture the essence of what we’re working to build at the center: an environment where disparate structures and data streams can be welded together in ways that both motivate and inform efforts to improve health across the biomedical spectrum—from bench science to population health,” he wrote in a post for Forge’s launch.

profile photo of Robert Califf, M.D.
Robert Califf, M.D. (Duke)

With that experience, he should fit right in at Alphabet, Google and Verily—the companies have been working to consolidate and merge their own myriad healthcare efforts under a single banner for the past year.

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Last November, Google brought on former Geisinger President and CEO David Feinberg to help develop a cohesive strategy for its healthcare-related and adjacent enterprises, a sphere that includes home automation and wearables in addition to big data analytics and cloud computing. According to reports at the time, Feinberg was set to report to Google’s artificial intelligence head, Jeff Dean, while working with CEO Sundar Pichai.

Less than a week later, Google announced plans to pull the healthcare work of DeepMind back into its orbit; the U.K.-based AI company was first acquired in 2014, before being restructured as an Alphabet subsidiary in the interim.

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That work was finally completed earlier last month, and included the transition of a number of data-sharing partnerships with National Health Service hospitals and trusts. Google also took up oversight of DeepMind’s Streams mobile app for clinicians—as well as several staff, who will go on to work on apps, cloud storage offerings and other projects.

Previous examples included AI programs to read mammograms and head and neck CT scans as well as algorithms to help spot early signs of macular degeneration or patterns that could predict deteriorating health, derived from electronic records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Another of Google and Alphabet’s projects has included backing Duke’s AI for Health initiative, where Califf has played a major role. The university also serves as a partner in Verily’s Project Baseline, which aims to create an end-to-end evidence generation platform to provide more comprehensive real-world data.

Going forward, Califf will remain on the faculty at Duke as an adjunct professor in the school of medicine. “This is bittersweet,” he wrote about the move. “It’s been 50 years since I arrived at Duke. All but four of those years, I have spent here.”