Google is back in the health business with a mysterious new initiative to combat death itself.

Google’s top executives didn’t say much about the biotech venture, called Calico, when they announced it on Sept. 18, except to say that it would focus on health, wellness, and the challenge of aging and that it would be headed by former Genentech CEO Art Levinson. But with its announcement, Google sent a clear message to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs: Think bigger.

“Google is making it more likely that the brightest technical minds will raise their hand and say, ‘I don’t want to do some cutesy social game; I want to solve real social problems,” said Owen Tripp, the founder of health startup GrandRounds, on hearing the news. Tripp has a point as Google is a role model for many entrepreneurs, and uses its ample funds to take big risks (or to borrow chief executive Larry Page’s term, “moonshots.”)

Digital health entrepreneurs we spoke with in the wake of the announcement are buzzing with excitement, and rightly so. This is Google’s second foray into public health, and it appears to be far more ambitious in its scope than its first, an ill-fated personal health record called Google Health. This product was shuttered in 2012 for failing to resonate with consumers.

Calico won’t target consumers in its early years. It It will function as more of a research institute than a pharmaceutical company, the New York Times reports. Calico will provide funding for basic research aimed at unpacking and analyzing the biological mechanisms behind aging. The company may also hire its own team of researchers to work on solutions to prevent or enervate the development of certain diseases.

Can Google succeed where others have failed?

If it releases products to the market, Calico has a virtually wide-open market opportunity, given that most anti-aging initiatives exist purely as nonprofits and have no clear plans for commercial products. Related initiatives have not experienced much success: Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired by pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million, have been downsized over the years. Elixir Pharmaceuticals was shut down.

But Calico is taking a fresh approach, by focusing on research, rather than turning quick profits. And with a reputed tens of millions of dollars in funding from Google corporate, the company has the funds to stay afloat for some time.

Moreover, Google is tapping a heavyweight biotech pioneer to lead the initiative. Dr. Arthur Levinson is a solid choice for the job, given that he’s the former chief executive at Genentech. He plans to remain the chairman of the board of directors of both Genentech and Apple, a position he assumed after Steve Jobs died in 2011.

Apple CEO Tim Cook referred to Dr. Levinson as “one of the crazy ones.” You could describe Larry Page in the same terms; he often says that Google only concerns itself with “10x ideas,” whether it’s a Wi-Fi balloon, self-driving car, or Calico, an initiative to delay aging.

Like Google’s other bold ideas, many key details about Calico, like the funding amount and employee count, are still unknown. To dispel some of the mystery, VentureBeat caught up with Silicon Valley’s health care power players, including former employees at Genentech and Google Health, for on- and off-the-record conversations. Here’s what we learned.

‘Larry and Sergey have always this grand vision … for public health’

Missy Krasner worked at Google Health for over six years, so her phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Krasner does not seem all that surprised by the news, as her former employers, Google cofounder Sergey Brin and Page, have long been fixated on how to use data analysis to predict and track disease.

Krasner believes that Calico will be fundamentally different to Google Health in both its “mission and intention.”

“Google Health was a basic building block,” she explained. “But Larry and Sergey have always had this grand vision about how to help society and improve public health.”

Page appears to be thinking big for Calico, potentially even bigger than cancer. On his personal blog, he jotted down a few thoughts on the long-term goals:

If you solve cancer, you’d add about three years to people’s average life expectancy. We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.

“In some industries,” Page told Time‘s Harry McCracken, “it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

Don’t underestimate the data

Krasner believes that Google’s entrance into public health is somewhat inevitable, and the search giant is uniquely equipped to handle and store mountains of information of any kind, including genotypical data.

Google’s engineers can perform complex trend analysis on data and send those results to governments, consumers, and advertisers.

Already, Google has begun applying its smarts to public health. For instance, its engineers are highly adept at predicting outbreaks of the flu by analyzing search terms in real time. I can only begin to imagine what the company could do with search terms, publicly available demographic information, and terabytes of human genetic information, the kind that a biotech giant like Genentech has been working with for years.

Levinson, a scientist with a Ph.D in biochemistry, rose through the corporate ranks at the Silicon Valley-based Genetech, where researches and technicians use DNA to discover and manufacture pharmaceuticals to treat patients with a variety of medical conditions.

From the get-go, Krasner believes that it will draw attention to the field of anti-aging, which has yet to gain a strong foothold with the public, or gain much funding for research.

“It’s ridiculous that aging hasn’t been treated as a disease,” she said.

>> Turn the page for more on Google’s opportunity in health care and genetics >>

Genetics is in Google’s DNA

Page, who has taken the lead on announcing Calico, suffers from a health problem that makes it difficult for him to speak and breathe on occasion. Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with left vocal-cord paralysis, a condition that restricts vocal-cord movement.

Meanwhile, Brin has a strong affinity for the fields of medicine and genetics. He regularly networks with some of the brightest minds in the science and research communities.

Brin recently separated from his wife, Anne Wojcicki, who is the founder of personalized genomics company 23andme. Over the years, Google made some sizable investments in 23andme. Brin will likely remain an outspoken supporter of the company, as Google’s financially tied to it. 23andme has a goal to spread to one million people and create the world’s largest database of genomic data.

In February, Brin put his own money into health, joining Facebook’s chief Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner and Levinson to sponsor a prize for breakthrough research in the life sciences. The goal of this initiative is to fund research to find cures for diseases and extend human life. (Sound familiar?)

Geneticists say the timing for the prize is just right, given the strides in gene sequencing technologies in the last decade. It’s now cheaper than ever to sequence the genome. Human geneticist and biotech entrepreneur Dietrich Stephan recently told me that he predicts that it will be commonplace for babies to have their genomes sequenced at birth.

That’s a lot of genomic data, which is potentially rich with information about the root cause of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. People could also use this data to develop more targeted treatments for various medical conditions (studies have shown that adverse drug events [ADEs] result in more than 770,000 injuries and deaths each year and cost up to $5.6 million per hospital) and help shape public health policy.

Another influence, who may have played a role in Calico’s formation, is so-called “restless genius” Ray Kurzweil. He is one of the most outspoken proponents of antiaging technologies and one of Google’s most prominent recent hires. It’s not clear yet whether Kurzweil will join the Calico team. However, a source familiar with the matter told me it’s very likely he’ll serve as an adviser of sorts.

Why is Calico a separate entity?

Google has made strides in other areas of health care — not just genetics. We’ve seen Google build up its data science talent and make strategic investments in health care startups via its investment arm, Google Ventures. Google Glass, its much-hyped wearable tech device, is already being positioned in the press as a useful tool for primary care physicians and surgeons. 

Given its proclivity for health care, it’s somewhat surprising that Calico has been set up as a separate venture. The office will be most likely located somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, nearby but not inside Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

Kranser suggests that one factor might be to shield Google from regulatory issues. Google is not a biotech company, nor does it want to be perceived as such. Biotech companies have to deal with regulatory agencies in Washington, D.C., including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In addition, by positioning Calico as a separate company, it will invite fewer comparisons to Google Health, which was one of Google’s few abject failures.

What does this mean for health entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs are buzzing about Google’s foray into health care, which will draw yet more attention to digital health.

Tripp has been tracking Google’s emergence in health care for some time. He credits the company as the leading expert on “data sets and big prediction” and believes that Google’s technology has the potential to save lives when applied to public health problems.

Lauren Fifield, a senior policy researcher at health record startup Practice Fusion, agrees. She believes that aging and health care has been largely overlooked by private companies — hence, there are few marketable drugs in sight.

It’s a shame, given that tackling age-related diseases could be critical to reducing health care costs and refocusing our medical system on quality of life and value of care. This is, after all, the primary goal of the Affordable Care Act.

Fifield is curious to see whether Google will take the “cool” approach by analyzing data gleaned from devices, like Apple’s iPhone or Google Glass, or it will “go for the real impact play.”

Fifield hopes Google will be the first big tech company to opt for the latter. Few policy-makers and companies today are prepared to face (let alone alleviate) how unprepared both individuals and clinicians and families are to make decisions about death and aging.

We expect that Google will make more announcements about Calico in the next few months, and will keep you posted. Does Google have a shot at fighting aging? Let us know in the comment section below.

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