Making Sense of Calico

Google recently announced a new venture, Calico, with a stated mission of extending human life by 100 years for those born 20 years ago. Some love it. Others are a bit disturbed that Google, the company that knows (almost) everything about everyone, will be getting in bed with pharma and medical device companies.

There are virtually no details on what Calico will actually do other than analyze data to help drive medical breakthroughs. Even still, the criticisms have been loud. I, on the other hand, can’t help but think, “Why didn’t Google start this sooner?”

Let’s consider some unique Google traits:

  1. Google is the best analytics company in the world, period. The healthcare IT analytics industry is booming right now, trying to make sense of the enormous amounts of data going into EHRs. Google has been analyzing the entirety of the public web for over a decade. Google is the undisputed leader of data aggregation, management, and analytics. They do it at unprecedented, unparalleled scale. If they can use their expertise and resources to drive new healthcare breakthroughs, why not?
  2. Larry Page has stated that he wants Google to be a "moonshot factory." Google is one of the select few entities in the world with the resources and expertise to build and deliver moonshots, because by definition, they require astronomical capital investments over long periods of time. Google has publicly debuted three moonshots from its Google X labs: self-driving cars, Glass, and Loon. I find it hard to make a compelling case that self-driving cars and Loon weren’t driven out of genuinely altruistic desires, even if Google will eventually profit handsomely from them. No one except Google has been willing or able to commercialize these technologies before. Google is one of the few entities in the world investing on 10- and 20-year timelines.

The most common criticism of Calico is that Google shouldn’t be working so closely with big pharma and medical device companies. Supposedly, pharma and medical devices companies will use that data to harm the general public. That data can lead to some hyper targeted ads, but so what? Is "protecting" people from ads worth killing those who might otherwise die? Data leads to insights. Let Google crunch the numbers and figure things out that were never before possible. They’re really good at it. The cost of being wrong is… ads.

One could make the argument that it’s dangerous to let Google hoard this data. That’s kind of a moot point since Uncle Sam is already doing so via the US healthcare billing system. Google runs the best, most secure data centers on the planet. If anyone is going to house your data, it should be Google.

If and when Calico finally delivers innovations, they’re sure to be expensive. That’s standard practice. I can’t recall a single technology breakthrough in history that was adopted by the bottom 10 percent before the top 10 percent. By definition, investing for 10 years to drive breakthroughs is expensive. Personalized medicine, whenever it arrives, will be absurdly expensive. The wealthy will adopt it first. That’s fantastic. The laws of capitalism dictate that competition will crop up and drive prices down and speed innovation up. It may take an additional five or 10 years, but inevitably, prices will plummet.

If Google is successful, what will it mean for society? How will Social Security work if everyone lives 100 years longer? How about Medicare? The answer is that we’ll figure it out when the time comes. Did Henry Ford care that cars would drive pollution and global warming? Did Einstein care that his research would drive the development of the atomic bomb? Did Steve Jobs care that the NSA would spy on everyone that used a computer? We’ll adapt to the new social norms if and when the time comes.

The world will look dramatically different in 15 years, and even more so in 30 years. We’ll probably have computers in our blood streams and contact lenses, we’ll probably be printing most consumer goods in our own homes, and robots will most certainly be everywhere. We shouldn’t try to render ethical judgments on a future that we can’t possibly comprehend.

Let the chips fall where they may. If Google wants to invest truckloads of money trying to do the impossible, why should we try to stop them?


Kyle Samani is a healthcare technology entrepreneur who is passionate about healthcare and technology startups.

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