By Alistair Barr
Andrew Conrad is leading a small but fast-growing effort at Google X to change the face of medicine. His Life Sciences division is working on a “smart” contact lens. It wants to use data to help prevent people from getting sick rather than just treat sick people. Scores of people from physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology are part of the team. He wears flip-flops to work.
Back in 2005, Conrad helped Dole Food Company chairman and billionaire David Murdock set up the North Carolina Research Campus, which studies health, nutrition and agriculture. Conrad hired experts from diverse fields such as physics, mathematics, zoology and molecular biology, putting them to work on powerful new medical devices like electron microscopes and gene synthesizers. They knew little about what their colleagues did, but Conrad hoped that together they might come up with new ways to treat diseases like cancer.
He is taking a similar approach at Google X, mushing together experts from disparate medical fields to produce health-care advances from the creative soup.
“Google X is one of the few places where the world’s best physicians and other scientists sit together in a cafeteria eating free food and figuring out how a smart contact lens should work,” Conrad said. “I have a strong belief that this will be fruitful.”
Who makes up the Life Sciences team? Here are five members, starting with the boss.
Conrad, who has a doctorate in cell biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, co-founded the National Genetics Institute in 1991. As chief scientist there, he came up with a new test for HIV and other viruses in blood-plasma donations. The approach screened millions of samples swiftly and at a fraction of the cost of previous tests. The National Genetics Institute became one of the world’s largest genetics laboratories, and Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings acquired it in 2000. He stayed on as LabCorp’s chief scientist until early 2013, when he joined Google X.
Google’s medicine man doesn’t look like a typical doctor. During a meeting Tuesday at a Google X office across the street from the company’s autonomous car project, Conrad sported blonde hair swept to the side, a goatee with dashes of gray, jeans and flip flops. He’s an avid surfer and showed off an inch-long cut on his left foot from an encounter with a rock while surfing the previous weekend.
His wife often lays out clothes for him in the morning because he sometimes leaves home looking like he “dressed in the dark.” For a sartorially challenged surfer, the relaxed dress code at Google X made the switch from his former life as a top health-care executive appealing.
Vik Bajaj was hired by Conrad last year to be the principal scientist for the Baseline study. Bajaj is an expert in nuclear magnetic resonance, which is used to measure the structure of organic compounds in great detail. He has researched how to use those magnetic fields for molecular imaging to help detect diseases early on. He has also designed some of the smallest and largest devices in the world that use this technology, according to Conrad. “I thought that was cool,” Conrad said. “That’s a guy we should have.” Bajaj has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley. He likes flying airplanes and sailing.
Marija Pavlovic works with Conrad and Bajaj on Baseline. She joined Google X in September 2013. She received a dual master’s degree in chemical and biochemical engineering from the University of Belgrade. Before coming to Google X, she was a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley. While at Berkeley’s nuclear department, she studied the impact of radiation on DNA.
Alberto Vitari is also working on Baseline. He earned a doctorate in cell signaling from the University of Dundee in Scotland, completed post-doctoral training at Genentech and worked at Novartis as a senior scientist before joining Google X. He describes himself as an “enthusiastic cancer biologist” on his LinkedIn page, which also notes that he joined Google X in May.
Brian Otis is working on the smart contact lens, which is designed to continuously measure glucose levels in tears. He was part of a team from the University of Washington that worked on the gadget before Google X took on the project. Otis is passionate about tiny things – particularly in finding out how small computer chips can get and what they can do when they are so minute. He has designed tiny, low-power chips used for implants, environmental monitoring and other wearable wireless sensors. Otis completed his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked at Intel and Agilent Technologies.