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Alphabet has quietly become the most influential player in Silicon Valley health tech

  • Former exec Stephanie Tilenius proposed a health tracking smartwatch to Google in 2012 but was rejected
  • Alphabet now has a dozen separate health tech initiatives going on
  • Former Google employees are at the core of many Silicon Valley health tech startups
Larry Page chief executive officer of Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc.
Getty Images
Larry Page chief executive officer of Google's parent company, Alphabet Inc.

Former Google executive Stephanie Tilenius recalls pitching an idea to Google X chief Astro Teller for a health-tracking smartwatch in 2012, but there wasn't much enthusiasm for the idea.

At the time, she said, the major health projects on the research team included a prototype for a contact lens to measure blood sugar and a data initiative around mapping human genomes.

"If only I had waited 3 years," she joked.

Today, Verily, a subsidiary of Google-parent company Alphabet, just unveiled a health-tracking smartwatch for research, and it integrates with a variety of consumer-oriented health devices via Android Wear.

Smartwatches aside, Alphabet is embracing the $3 trillion health sector in a big way.

Alphabet has more than a dozen teams focused on health across its different companies, ranging from anti-aging initiatives to bioelectronics. Tilenius, who joined a growing group of former Google employees in health by launching a health coaching app called Vida, noted that Teller's team went on to seed a number of other ambitious projects in health and life sciences. Many of these efforts, including the contact lens, were brought under the umbrella of Verily, Alphabet's primary life sciences arm.

Other venture-backed health companies founded by former Google employees include Omada Health, Color Genomics, Forward, Cardiogram, Nuna, and Flatiron Health.

Of Alphabet's "other bets," which include Verily, at least five are investing in or developing products for the health sector. These include Sidewalk Labs, its urban planning subsidiary; Calico, an anti-aging effort; and its investment arms, GV and CapitalG.

Google also has a variety of teams working internally on health software and services, such as DeepMind, a deep learning company it acquired in 2014; Google Brain, which is working on machine learning projects in health; and Google Cloud. It also has an ongoing effort within the search team to improve the accuracy of health results.

According to former Google employees, some of these teams overlap by coordinating on projects and research. Others function independently from the rest of Alphabet, which is mostly by design.

DeepMind and Google Brain actively compete for engineering talent to work on their health care initiatives, said Brandon Ballinger, cofounder of Cardiogram, a heart rate monitoring app. Ballinger, a former Googler, said he often comes up against these companies in recruiting battles. "This competition is intentional to keep minds sharp," he said.

Meanwhile, Calico and Verily have their own offices to help them function with their own management structures, although some staff were recruited from Google and still maintain close relationships, said several former Google employees. Google executive Larry Page once described at a conference Calico as "pretty independent," implying that he did not want Google to focus on areas with complex regulations. "It's a painful business to be in," he said.

"People are trying to think about how to do health care in a way that will give them more freedom," said Missy Krasner, a vice president of health and life sciences at Box and a former Google employee, who focused on health. "The thinking seems to be to let innovative projects mushroom up."

During her five years at Google, Krasner worked on an effort to develop software for consumers to store their health records. That initiative, called Google Health, was shut down in 2011 after failing to gain traction.

Despite some press reports, Krasner said that executives at the company did not sour on health care after the failure of Google Health. Instead, she hasn't noticed any dimming in the commitment to health, especially when it comes to leveraging its machine learning and AI expertise.

As Roni Zeiger, the company's former chief health strategist, put it: "I think a lens which Google has used for quite some time is by asking how much computing expertise, algorithms and bold creativity be used to impact an area like health."