Google’s health care projects, which were once scattered across the company, are now starting to come together under one team now working out of the Palo Alto offices formerly occupied by Nest, Google’s smart home group, according to several current and former employees.
Google Health, which represents the first major new product area at Google since hardware, began to organize in 2018, and now numbers more than 500 people working under David Feinberg, who joined the company in early 2019. Most of these people were reassigned from other groups within Google, although the company has been hiring and currently has over a dozen open roles.
Google and its parent company, Alphabet, are counting on new businesses as growth slows in its core digital advertising business. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who was recently promoted from Google’s CEO to run the whole conglomerate, has said health care offers the biggest potential for Alphabet to use artificial intelligence to improve outcomes over the next 5 to ten years.
Google’s health efforts date back more than a decade to 2006, when it attempted to create a repository of health records and data. Back then, it aimed to connect doctors and hospitals and help consumers aggregate their medical data. However, those early attempts failed in market and the company terminated this first “Google Health” product in 2012. Google then spent several years developing artificial intelligence to analyze imaging scans and other patient documents and identify diseases with the intent of predicting outcomes and reducing costs. It also experimented with other ideas, like adding an option for people searching for medical information to talk to a doctor.
The new Google Health unit is exploring some new ideas, such as helping doctors search medical records and improving health-related Google search results for consumers, but primarily consolidates existing teams that have been working in health for a while.
Google’s not the only tech giant working on new efforts centered around the health industry. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have all ramped up efforts in recent years, and have been building out their own teams.
Who’s important at Google Health?
In just over a year under Feinberg’s leadership, Google Health has grown to more than 500 employees, according to the company’s internal directory and people familiar with the company. These people asked for anonymity as they’re not authorized to comment publicly about the company’s plans.
Many of these Google Health employees have come over from other groups, including Medical Brain, which involves using voice recognition software to help doctors take notes; and Deep Mind’s health division, which was folded into Google Health back in November of 2018 and has worked with the U.K.’s National Health System to alert doctors when patients are experiencing acute kidney injury.
The business model for Google Health is still a work in progress, but its leadership and organizational structure provided some clues as to the company’s areas of interest.
Feinberg is high up in Google’s internal org chart and has the ear of the top Google execs including Pichai. He reports to Jeff Dean, the company’s AI lead and one of its earliest employees.
Dean co-founded Google Brain in 2010, which catapulted the company’s deep learning technology into medical analysis. Some of the first health-related projects out of Google Brain included a new computer-based model to screen for signs of diabetic retinopathy in eye scans, and an algorithm to detect breast cancer in X-rays. In 2019, Dean took the helm of the company’s AI unit, reporting to Pichai.
Feinberg stood out in interviews for the job because he helped motivate Geisinger to start thinking more deeply about preventative health and not just treating the sick, according to people familiar with the hiring process. During his tenure at Geisinger, the hospital experimented with giving away healthy food to people with chronic conditions, including diabetes. It also pushed for more patients to have genetic tests to screen for diseases before it grew too late to treat them.
Feinberg works closely with Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian, who has named healthcare as one of biggest industry verticals for the business as it attempts to catch up with cloud front-runners Amazon and Microsoft.
Another key player at Google Health is Paul Muret, who had been an internal advocate for forming Google Health before Geisinger was hired, say two people who worked there. Muret is a veteran of the company who worked as a vice president of engineering for analytics, followed by video and apps. He’s now listed on LinkedIn as a product leader for “AI and Health,” and people in the organization say he’s in charge on the product side.
The company is now staffing up its team with health industry execs to show that it’s not just a group of Silicon Valley techies tinkering with artificial intelligence.
For instance, Feinberg helped recruit Karen DeSalvo as Google’s chief health officer. DeSalvo, who was the health commissioner of New Orleans, played a major role in rebuilding the city’s health systems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Like Feinberg, she’s been a big advocate of the idea that there’s more to health than just health care. She’s pushed for hospitals to consider whether patients have access to transportation services, healthy food and a support system before sending them home.
Google Health has also absorbed a small group from Nest that was looking into home-health monitoring, which would be particularly beneficial for seniors who are hoping to live independently. That group was led by former Nest CTO Yoky Matsuoka, sources say, but she recently left Alphabet, and has reportedly been working as a fellow at Panasonic. Matsuoka co-founded Google’s R&D arm, now called X, in 2011, and worked at Apple in between her stints at Google.
She’s not the only high-profile departure. A top business development leader, Virginia McFerran, who came from insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, has also left the company. To replace her, the team brought over Matt Klainer, a vice president from the consumer communications products group as its business development lead for Google Health.
Some health-related ‘Other Bets’ will remain separate
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has a number of health-related “Other Bet” businesses that will remain independent from Google Health, including Verily, the life sciences group, and Calico, which is focused on aging.
Recently promoted Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai stressed that the setup was intentional during the company’s most recent earnings call with investors, implying that Alphabet was not planning to consolidate all of its health efforts under one leader anytime soon.
“Our thesis has always been to apply these deep computer science capabilities across Google and our Other Bets to grow and develop into new areas,” noted Pichai, when describing the company’s work in health.
“The Alphabet structure allows us to have a portfolio of different businesses with different time horizons, without trying to stretch a single management team across different areas,” he continued.
–CNBC’s Jennifer Elias contributed to this report