Google's biotech plan: Partner with legendary CEO, tackle aging, think outside the cancer box

Art Levinson--Courtesy of Genentech

So just what is Google ($GOOG) up to? All we know for sure right now is that CEO Larry Page has expressed some rather vague but gigantic goals for the newly created company Calico, such as significantly adding on to the expected lifespan for humans while tackling health issues related to aging. And it's hired the legendary ex-CEO--now chairman--of Genentech, Art Levinson, to run the show.

Levinson, wealthy in his own right after Roche ($RHHBY) acquired Genentech, is also investing in Calico.

Google CEO Larry Page is not thinking small, like just curing cancer. He has something much bigger in mind.

"Are people really focused on the right things?" Page told Time in an interview. "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."

And this is not one of those startups where you turn on the lights and start to look to make money. Calico is in it for the long-term.

"In some industries, it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Healthcare is certainly one of those areas," said Page. "Maybe we should shoot for the things that are really, really important so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done."

Small details like who and how many staffers will be on the Calico team, how much money is being invested upfront, and just which projects they will tackle have yet to be outlined by Google, which has invested in a few biotech companies through its venture arm. Google Ventures has been keen to back select companies with a focus on using advanced computational tech in drug discovery. Perhaps they have something like that in mind for the field of aging.

One of the tech company's primary concerns yesterday was reassuring investors that Page and Sergey Brin wouldn't be distracted from their day jobs making billions and billions of dollars. This would be a small venture, they insisted.

Of course, small for Google could easily loom large in the biotech world.

- here's the Time article