Two years ago, life science startups were only six per cent of the Google Ventures portfolio.
As 2015 draws to a close, that industry now is nearly one third of Google Ventures investments and is only going to grow larger, says the president and CEO of Google’s venture arm, Bill Maris.
”The technology is moving quickly for the benefit of a lot of patients, which is the most exciting part of this. I think it’s an area of huge potential innovation and a lot of excitement,” Maris said. “We’ve had success here in the past, and for me, it’s personally one of the most gratifying areas to invest capital in.”
Maris entered 2015 concerned about the “frothy” funding environment for startups. Money was flowing freely, and Maris was worried that the ever-increasing deal price would price the firm out of companies.
It turned out not to be the case, although looking to 2016, there’s already signs that the funding environment is going to be interesting.
Biotech will be big
If you asked Maris five years ago if he would be investing in a gene-editing startup, he would have laughed. The CRISPR technology had only been shown to work on human cells in 2012.
Now, the bio tech and life sciences field made up 31 per cent of Google Ventures investments. Consumer and enterprise startups were trailing at 24 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively. However, that doesn’t correlate to the pitches they see in each area.
“On the life science side, there’s a lot fewer companies being started because you can start an app company in your garage and in 18 months, reach a billion people and be a billionaire,” Maris said. “You can’t really do that yet in the life sciences. It’s more traditional and a little bit of a slower process.”
By the time a biotech company gets in front of the team, they have a higher success of a pitch rate because it’s a relationship that’s been developed over years, rather than an app that’s gone viral overnight, Maris explains. The number of companies — and investments — will only go up, Maris predicts.
The new area of interest
While Maris has a pipeline of companies coming into the life sciences category, there’s a new emerging area that’s also snagged his interest.
“Machine learning, deep learning, AI, whatever you want to call it — It’s a transformational area that is underlying a lot of the technology in companies,” he said.
The firm has invested in data startups in the past, but had lumped them into the category with enterprise. The firm decided to make it its own category because it’s increasingly becoming the foundation for many companies, says Maris.
But, it’s still an area that’s really early and requires deep technical knowledge unlike the consumer app side. There’s not a long list of companies that his firm has passed on and regrets, rather they’re still looking, Maris says.
“We don’t have any fundamental marquee investments that I can point to and say ‘this is our leading AI company’ but I think in the next 12 to 14 months we can find a company like that, like Deep Mind, which Google acquired,” he said.
While life sciences is an explicit area where Google Ventures wants to invest more cash, Maris won’t commit to artificial intelligence quite yet.
“It’s hard to say if we’re going to be investing tens or hundreds of millions. That’s not as important as finding the key companies,” Maris said. “It may be a smaller volume, or even a smaller number of dollars, but I don’t really know. We don’t have the pipeline of companies that matches the life sciences yet.”