Silicon Valley's thrust into biotech sparks scramble for data scientists

The search at Apple ($AAPL), Google ($GOOG) and other members of the tech elite for new business opportunities is pushing them to recruit from outside of their core fields. And whether the sector being targeted is artificial intelligence, self-driving cars or life sciences, the result is the same: a tug-of-war with incumbents for talent.

Thomas Insel

Google in particular has shown itself to be adept at winning such scraps. Last month, Thomas Insel became one of the search giant-cum-tech conglomerate's biggest coups when he swapped the post of director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health for a role at Google's life science team. The academic scene has also lost its share of stars. Over the past 18 months, Cynthia Kenyon and Jessica Mega have respectively wound down their activities at the University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School for a chance to play with some of Google's life science toy boxes.

Those on the other side of the tug-of-war expect the fight for talent to continue. "[Academic data scientists are] being continuously recruited away," Stanford University cardiologist Euan Ashley told Nature News. Those who swap academia for Silicon Valley typically talk up the lure of the research resources on offer and the desire to move away from the publication-based model of grading success as motivations for their decisions. The money is better, too. "We're in competition with Google and other tech companies, and generally they can pay a lot more than Stanford can," Ashley said.

What is less clear is whether pitching up at Google will fulfill academics' desires to have more of an impact on the real world. To date, life science initiatives started by Apple, Google and the other big dogs of tech have generated more hype than tangible results, something that is perhaps unsurprising given the time it takes to get medical research programs to the point at which they start to affect the real world. Having been beavering away on life sciences for several years, Google is nearing the point at which this could change, with its Novartis ($NVS)-partnered contact lens a possible early success.

- read Nature News' feature

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