The board chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google biotech spinoff Verily Life Sciences, rose to the defense of the firm Wednesday after a series of STAT reports that raised concerns about its leadership and the science behind its signature projects.
“We’re very, very confident of not only (Verily’s) approaches, but also the controls, reviews, and processes that will ultimately produce some amazing medical breakthroughs,” Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said at Alphabet’s annual shareholder’s meeting.
A STAT article Monday described skepticism by leading independent scientists and former Verily employees about three of the new company’s highest profile projects, including a proposed cancer-detecting wristband that Verily CEO Andrew Conrad has depicted as being like the Tricorder — the iconic, fictional diagnostic tool from the TV series “Star Trek.” David Walt, a Tufts University expert on biosensors, called the idea “science fantasy.”
Alphabet, primarily through Verily, is trying to become a transformative force in life sciences by linking Silicon Valley know-how and biotechnology to cure seemingly intractable diseases.
Verily has touted a glucose-sensing contact lens as a substitute for frequent blood tests on diabetics. Independent experts have called it scientifically unlikely, largely because glucose readings in tears don’t reflect the levels of glucose in blood.
Still, Schmidt confidently predicted the success of the product, which is in the research phase in conjunction with Verily partner Alcon.
“If you’re one of the very many people who will have diabetes in America — and by the way, it’s worse in many other countries — this is going to be a lifesaver in terms of keeping you alive, especially as the disease progresses,” Schmidt told shareholders at Alphabet’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
STAT previously reported that Verily has no formal scientific advisory board, unlike most biotech startups, and keeps the names of its directors — other than Conrad — secret. Those directors consist only of Verily and Alphabet executives, according to Conrad.
Schmidt said that “with respect to Verily, we have put in place a very, very strong oversight group.”
Schmidt also voiced support of high-tech thermostat maker Nest, another Alphabet company that has been the target of recent, critical media attention. Controversial Nest cofounder and CEO Tony Fadell stepped down last week to take an advisory role at Alphabet amid reports that he had alienated many employees with an overly demanding management style.
“We have millions of people using Nest thermostats in more than 200 countries,” Schmidt said. “It’s growing at 50 percent year over year, faster than the overall company.”