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Health Care Needs More Entrepreneurs and Innovation: Google Ventures Head

Ruth Coxeter, | Health Sciences Producer
Friday, 12 Oct 2012 | 1:22 PM ET

“We’re looking for entrepreneurs with a healthy disregard for the impossible,” said the managing partner of Google's venture capital unit, describing his hunt for the next big idea. “What made Google different was Larry and Sergey. What made Apple different was Steve Jobs. So we’re looking for special individuals”

Google Ventures' Bill Maris — a startup veteran, who founded and sold a web hosting company — knows the challenges entrepreneurs face.

His challenge: Help the fund invest $200 million a year in startups. That works out to about one to two investments a week.

For Maris, who's also a neuroscientist, health care is a good place to look; seven of the 130 plus startups listed in its portfolio are focused on life sciences.

And clearly the Google Ventures team has an eye for talent. Shinya Yamanaka, who pioneered the intellectual property behind Google Ventures portfolio company iPerian (and now serves on the startup’s board), was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his groundbreaking stem cell research.

As part of CNBC's Healthy Week special report, we asked Maris to talk about the power of funding big ideas to change the practice of medicine. (See exclusive web video below.)

How are you changing the way venture Capitalism is done?

We've really taken a radically different approach to venture capital than has been seen before. We built a venture fund from the ground up, which is a pretty rare thing these days. And we hired a team of entrepreneurs and engineers and people who have built significant companies in the past and decided that we should focus our efforts on being hands on, helping them solve the kinds of problems that we faced as entrepreneurs just a few years ago.

We're measured by financial return, like all venture capitalists are, and probably should be. But we do have a larger goal, which is to invest in and support the most disruptive, interesting entrepreneurs in the world that are really looking to make a big change for the better in the way we live our lives.

There’s no Instagram for health care. There’s no 18-month-old company that a founder has started in their garage that turned into a billion dollar exit. The kind of media coverage on an exit like that generates the number of entrepreneurs that are attracted to areas like that. What it’s left, I think, is holes in the life sciences where to create a company can take years. I’ve long been concerned that there isn’t enough innovation, disruption and entrepreneurs attracted to this really important area of health care as there are to other areas of technology.

We’re going to continue to invest because we think it’s important. It can be completely transformative and it can also generate great returns. But I’m concerned that sometimes there’s a shortsightedness in terms of investing in this space that has led many people to underinvest in something that is really important to the future.

What three companies has Google Venture invested in that have had real macro impact potential in health care?

We’re really early in our investing cycle. We’re three or four years in now. But we’re seeing promising early results from companies like Foundation Medicine, which is creating a new kind of cancer diagnostic, Adimab, which is a computational biology company trying to revolutionize antibody discovery and DNAnexus, which is creating tools to help researchers understand and work with large amounts of genomic data.

I think absolutely Foundation Medicine is square in the middle of an area of disruption and development for cancer treatment. They’ve developed a technology to genotype your specific type of cancer so that we're not just treating a broad category like lung cancer, but we know exactly what kind of cancer you have. (More: Interview with Foundation Medicine's CEO)

We can find the drugs that are best targeted to it, that the cancer will respond to most effectively. And that's really the future of cancer treatment.

Google Ventures has invested in several genomics companies — including 23andMe and Foundation Medicine. How is low-cost genomic testing going to potentially change the world?

We’re just at the beginning of a revolution in medicine, a lot of which is based around genomics. A lot of disease state and aging itself can really be traced back to changes in the genome. Cancer is an obvious example. And a lot of our investments are in areas that focus on some of these challenges.

Cost is gonna continue to drop, too — dramatically. And what it means is that having your genome genotyped is going to be routine. It's going to be part of your normal physical exam. You're going to be able to look for changes. You're going to be able to genotype any cancers you might have. And it's really gonna change the way medicine runs.

Living to 200?

One of the obvious kind of conclusions is there's gonna be an explosion of data. One gene in particular having sequenced is interesting. But if you have the genetic sequences of thousands of tens of thousands or millions of people, you can look for patterns — that wouldn't emerge over much smaller data sets. And you can start to understand — the genesis of disease in ways that you never would have before. So without these tools, we wouldn't even have a window into these diseases, much less an idea on how to treat them.

David Joel | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

Foundation Medicine is a great example of this. Previously, if you had cancer we might determine that you had lung cancer. And you would be prescribed a course of treatment for lung cancer.

Now it's possible to genotype exactly the kind of cancer you have so we can know what drugs it would be most resistant to and what drugs it will respond most effectively to. And that's just a really simple, straightforward example on how genetic information can change the way medicine is prosecuted.

Your genome is what encodes exactly who you are, what age you look like, feel like, and appear. The diseases that are encoded into your genes, whether they're Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or lots of other disease states. It's not the be all and end all, but it's a huge piece of the puzzle. Once we are able to understand that we'll be able to practice medicine in ways that seemed unimaginable 30 years ago.

Will some of these investments change the experience of aging as we know it?

I think so. I think aging is, in large part, a genetic condition. And if you can control and understand the genome — there's no reason to think — that you wouldn't be able to influence aging. In 1900, the average lifespan was 48 years and today it's something on the order of 78 years. And I have no reason to think at some point it won't be upwards of 200 years.

What has the most potential to change our life span?

I think genomics is really the key to it. You can't really treat a problem that you can't measure. Right now, we have no really objective diagnostic to measure age, other than the number of times you've been on the earth while it went around the sun. So really on aging, developing a diagnostic to measure your true age would be, for me, one of the key steps. Right now, we sort of use the medieval method of how many times have you been on the earth while it circled the sun to measure your age. But that doesn't explain why one person lives to be 60 years and another lives to be 105 years.

Part has to do with what's encoded in your genetics and part has to do with how you lived your life. And if we can really understand those differences there isn't any reason why we can't extend lifespan in a healthy way.