Verily has its hands in a lot of projects.
The life sciences company has been developing glucose-monitoring contact lenses, and it makes silverware that makes it easier for people with hand tremors to eat. Along the way, Verily has partnered with some of the biggest names in pharma in everything from diabetes care to a surgical robot spin-out company.
Its latest endeavour? A joint venture with British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, called Galvani Bioelectronics, that will develop ways to use electric signals to treat chronic illness like arthritis, diabetes, or asthma. GSK will have a 55% stake in the company, while Verily will own 45%.
Following the announcement, Business Insider spoke to Verily’s chief technology officer Brian Otis about what the new company will look like.
How bioelectronics work
Bioelectronics, or the concept that you can stimulate parts of the body with electric pulses to treat chronic conditions, isn’t as science fiction as it sounds.
It’s already a technique used in deep brain stimulation, which uses electric signals to block out the abnormal nerve signals that cause tremors in diseases like Parkinson’s. It’s also similar to how a pacemaker works: The pacemaker sends electric signals to the heart to correct abnormal heartbeats.
Otis said that the intent of Galvani will be to push this technology further in order to tackle more chronic diseases that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with nerves.
“The best way to think about it is there’s one thing that Verily is interested in and that’s improving outcomes,” he said.
To do that with bioelectronics, two things will need to happen:
First, they will need to have better maps of how our neurons connect to one another, creating circuits. That way, they can get a better picture of how those neural circuits relate to organs in the body. This information will have to come from both people with certain conditions, and healthy people. That way, researchers can get a good picture of how the nerves interact with healthy and unhealthy organs. And that’s the part that GSK is already working on — the company has been exploring bioelectronics since 2012.
The second thing that needs to happen — and that’s where Verily’s background will come into play — is building the miniature devices that you can implant in the body. Otis said that since he joined Google four years ago, the organisation’s been working to make this happen.
“We have years of experience making biocompatible technology,” he said. “It’s a good head start.”
Otis said that the most exciting thing to him is that the more they learn about how nerves play a role in diseases, the better they will be able to make the bioelectronic technology, which ultimately could treat that disease. “That’s the cycle, this engine, that’s making us exciting,” he said.
What the new company will look like
Galvani will act as a standalone company that’s headquartered out in the UK, though the company will also have a base in south San Francisco near Verily. The core group of scientists that have already been working on bioelectronics over at GSK will move over to Galvani, and the two parent companies will likely be involved in recruiting the rest of the organisation.
But, Otis said, it’s important to keep the company separate from its two parent organisations.
“The thinking is, for the best probability of success, it’s best to have the whole organisation focused,” he said. “It will have all the support of the parent companies, but it gives it a definite focus to be able to track bioelectronic medicine.”
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