Innovation greatness   (profit is secondary)       or  

Selected/Edited excerpts from a September 2013 article.

Larry Page, age 40, doesn't slow down. He is co-founder and CEO of one of the world's most successful, ubiquitous, and sometimes strange companies on the planet. Google is first in the search and online-advertising business. Yet it is also in the YouTube business, mobile-operating-system business, the Web-browser business, the free-e-mail business, the driverless-car business, the wearable-computing business, the online-map business, the renewable-energy business, and the business of providing Internet access to remote areas via high-altitude balloons, among many other businesses.

Google's corporate strategy is one part mainstream services and one part risky moon shots.

He says, "I'm not proposing that we spend all of our money on those kinds of speculative things, but we should be spending a commensurate amount with what normal types of companies spend on research and development, and spend it on things that are a little more long-term and a little more ambitious than people normally would.

Google is now preparing an especially distant moon shot, gearing up to seriously attempt to extend human life. It is launching a new company named Calico to focus specifically on health and aging. It will be headed by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of biotech pioneer Genentech who began his career as a scientist and has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He will also continue in his roles as chairman of the board for both Genentech and Apple, the latter a position he took after Steve Jobs died in 2011.

Google will now be making longer-term bets than most health care companies do. He says, "It takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. We should shoot for the things that are really important, so that 10 or 20 years from now we will have those things done."

No other company could plausibly make such an announcement. Smaller outfits don't have the money and larger ones don't have the bones. Apple unveils new products every few years, but these are mostly short-term. (J-ed: Too many companies never really give any real innovation to the world; they just try to play catch-up, copy (or steal from) others, try to protect their aging and declining products and patents, and focus on trying to maximize their profits.)  By contrast, Google's modus operandi is gonzo airdrops into really deep new territory.

So why is a company built on finding information and serving ads spending untold amounts on a project that flies in the face of the basic reality of the human condition, certainty of aging and death? The unavoidable answer is, who else is going to do it?

Google's fondness for moon shots and its ability to take them can be attributed in large part to Page himself. When he was a Stanford computer-science grad student, his insight was that the most relevant Web pages are those with the most links to them, so he and fellow student Sergey Brin founded Google in 1998. Page was CEO until 2001 and then brought in tech veteran Eric Schmidt from software giant Novell. Then unconventional troika of Page, Brin, and Schmidt raised eyebrows; but their power sharing led to Google's monster growth. In 2011, Page reclaimed the CEO title and Schmidt became executive chairman.

The effect of Page's leadership at Google was immediately clear. In 2012, the company bought Motorola for $12.5 billion to begin manufacturing its own hardware. Page also reshaped Google's management structure, creating the L-Team (L for Larry) of top managers.

Employee #20, Marissa Mayer, left to run Yahoo. Page has shown that Google can and has grown multiple businesses successfully. Most of its $50 billion in revenue still comes from search-related ads, but analysts estimate that YouTube is a $4 billion business, and Android, its operating system for mobile phones, is estimated to bring in $6.8 billion.

Page is uncommonly ambitious and impatient, and he wants the company that he created to be also. He says, "It was always unsatisfying to me to look at companies that get very big, but then just do one thing. Ideally, if you have more people and more resources, you can do more things and get more things solved. We've always had that philosophy."

Observers note that guys like Larry don't focus on preserving value. They work on building new value. It's the advantage of having made something from nothing. (J-ed: The contrast with money-grabbing companies that are focused more on maximizing profits at the expense of consumer's best interests is obvious and striking.)

So now, the war on aging has truly begun. And Google may be able to get better traction on aging when huge pharmaceuticals haven't [J-ed: because Page and Google are focused more on solving problems than getting money.] Google has invested in gene-sequencing company 23andMe, a startup co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, Sergey Brin's wife.

Silicon Valley has the worldview whereby, broadly speaking, that there is no problem that can't be addressed by the application of liberal amounts of technology; and everything is solvable if you reduce it to data and then throw enough processing power at it. And the technophiles are right, up to a point. Medicine is becoming an information science as doctors and researchers are now able to mine massive quantities of data.

And Google is very, very good with large data sets.

When will that lead to something that Google might actually sell?   It's anybody's guess.

What is certain is that looking at medical problems through the lens of data and statistics, rather than simply attempting to bring more drugs to market, may produce startlingly counterintuitive opinions [j-ed: and results].

Spring Cleaning - Page has also concentrated on avoiding flops like Wikipedia knockoff Knol and Google Buzz, a Twitter clone almost nobody wanted. He has done this, in part, by ratcheting down the number of new-product introductions and by axing existing projects in periodic "spring cleanings." He has, in a memorable phrase, declared his intention to put "more wood behind fewer arrows." And Page has been "ruthless" about nixing lackluster ideas.

Early incarnations of buried competitors like AltaVista by being vastly more accurate. Other hits like Gmail with its abundant free storage, and Google Maps with its Street View imagery, have succeeded for similar reasons. Larry pushes everyone to have 10x innovations - - innovation that is 10-times greater than what we have today.

Most of Google's wildest ideas are dreamed up at Google X, which functions like Google's fantastical subconscious. While Page tends to the entire business as CEO, Brin devotes much of his attention to X, which he runs with scientist and entrepreneur Astro Teller. His title (just to underline their stratospheric aspirations) is "Captain of Moonshots." Teller's paternal grandfather was physicist Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb.

According to Teller, Google X's moon shots have three things in common: a significant problem for the world that needs solving, a potential solution, and the possibility of breakthrough technology making all the difference. (Earning money from the ideas comes later, and that makes Google far different than almost everyone else.)

Four big Google X efforts are public knowledge: Google Glass, the augmented-reality spectacles that pack a camera and a tiny Web-connected screen that you can peek at out of the corner of your right eye and control with your voice and gestures. Makani Power is a startup that the company invested in and then bought outright to put up energy-generating wind turbines on flying wings that circle 1,000 feet in the air and are tethered to the ground. Project Loon aims to deliver Internet access to remote areas of the planet by beaming it wirelessly from 39-ft.-tall helium balloons hovering 12 miles in the sky. And now Calico is a Google X long shot that will be a separate entity from Teller's shop.

Then there is the Google X moon shot with a plausible chance of permanently reshaping the way we live - self-driving automobiles. Page first became intrigued by the concept at Stanford in the mid-1990s, and he seems doleful that the idea was still up for grabs when Google got around to tackling it. He says, it could have been done 10 years ago.

Google's robocars use lasers and cameras to see other vehicles and even read road signs, and have now covered half a million miles of road in California, Nevada and Florida.

Google Glass is more fully baked but still in a distinctly experimental phase. Brin wears them frequently, and a few thousand people outside of Google own a $1,500 beta version.

Google's moon shots are not likely to suffer from underfunding as Google has a $54 billion cash stockpile, not to mention dominant market share in its most important lines of business. But will any of its long-shot projects be the Google cash cows of tomorrow? Maybe. Teller says, Google X is not a philanthropic organization. But neither is it picking projects based on obvious profit potential. "If you make something a little bit better, people might pay you for it; or they may not. But if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way."

The Core - It is not as though Google's mainstream services: Search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, and Android are languishing for lack of attention. Page says, "Our core areas are so important to people: access to information, understanding the world, communications, interactions with other people, helping you with your work ... it's incredibly exciting to come into work every day and work on those things."

YouTube opened YouTube Space Los Angeles, a sprawling 41,000-sq.-ft. video-production facility housed in a rehabbed 1950 aircraft hangar originally erected by Howard Hughes. Smaller YouTube Spaces have opened in London and Tokyo, with more on the way.

Page says tghat his primary responsibility is to make sure that the entire organization errs on the side of thinking big. Getting Android to dominate smart-phones was a half-decade effort, and Android is now closing in on an 80% share of the smartphone market.

Page is impatient. He says, "Big companies, and maybe even Google, are not as good as we should be at starting things early enough so that it gets done by the time we need it to be a real business."

Page's 10x thinking creates a never-ending cycle. If you believe that it is always possible to be ten times better than your current self (or the other guy), it is impossible to reach a state of self-satisfaction. Which means that even if Calico, Glass, self-driving cars, Makani Power and Project Loon all turn out to be wild, epoch-shifting hits, success for Google overall will still be another moon shot away. And Page will probably be fretting that the company isn't moving fast enough to launch it.

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