MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google Life Sciences, the Silicon Valley giant’s new foray into health and medicine, announced a new name Monday that slips easily off the tongue but might sound antiquated to a high-tech, life-sciences ear: Verily.
“Verily, I swear,” as Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII.
The word means “truly” or “certainly.” It dates back to 13th century Middle English and fell out of common use … well, a while ago. It often pops up, however, in the still very popular King James Bible.
So why would future-focused Google Life Sciences adopt a name that recalls an era of knights and pestilence?
CEO Andy Conrad told STAT that the name is aspirational. “Only through the truth are we going to defeat Mother Nature,” Conrad said.
He said Verily’s focus is a shift from conventional medical technologies, “from reactive to proactive, from intervention to prevention.”
Brand consultants said the Biblical connotation could be a hurdle for Verily, but could also work to its advantage.
“I can’t think of another association for verily but the Bible,” said Greg Balla, creative director of Zenmark, a San Francisco firm that was involved in the naming of Google’s spinoff Calico, focused on aging and longevity. “The challenge for them is to try to move away from the heavy-handed quality attached to Verily from association with the scripture — due to everything that’s happening in our world right now.”
But if they can deliver on the promise, “you can trust what we are doing,” Balla said, “then it fits perfectly.”
Kristen Pembroke, client services director at Catchword, an Oakland branding firm that serves many tech and life sciences companies, said in an email that the obscurity of “verily” could foster the company’s ability to “evolve its mission and vision over time.”
“Verily is easy to pronounce and approachable,” she said. “However, some may find the tonality to be light and whimsical — verily sounds similar to merrily, for instance.”
The company was spun off from Google a few months ago within Alphabet, a holding company for Google itself and affiliated entities. Verily has built a multidisciplinary team of doctors, engineers, chemists, and data gurus to tackle big mysteries of disease prevention and health. As a sign of seriousness about the bigger picture, Verily has a staff philosopher. “We have to understand the ‘why’ of what people do,” Conrad said. “A philosopher might be as important as a chemist.”
Verily evolved out of a Google-designed contact lens for diabetics that continuously monitors glucose in tears. The company is targeting health issues that affect millions, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental health. It’s producing other wearable medical devices and miniature sensors, such as a nanoparticle-based diagnostic tool to detect cancer or other ailments at very early stages.
Verily’s “baseline” study of human health, chief medical officer Dr. Jessica Mega said in a recent interview with STAT, is an effort to grasp what we call “healthy.” A goal, she said, is to prevent disease by understanding human variability well enough to create individualized treatments that might be based on biological, genetic, behavioral, and environmental data.
Verily’s ambitions dwarf its staff of a few hundred employees on the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., and at a small office in Cambridge, Mass. Conrad and Mega said they plan other collaborations like those they have in progress with pharma giant Novartis to commercialize their contact lens, and with universities such as Stanford and Duke on the baseline study.
For all of Verily’s grand ambitions, Conrad hinted at caution, if not humility, paraphrasing Clarence Darrow, the great lawyer and civil libertarian: “We don’t claim to know what other ignorant men are sure of.”