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Google X Has a New Logo and New Plan to Turn Moonshots Into Actual Businesses

The experimental lab wants to be Alphabet's incubator.

Project Loon

Welcome to the penultimate piece of our Alphabet series, a reported look at the what’s what and who’s who of each subsidiary in Google’s new holding company. We have just two remaining — Google X and Google Inc. — before Alphabet lifts the curtain on its first financial report since splitting in two. Unfortunately, Google threw off our timing. On Friday, the company announced it was pushing back its earnings, the first to report two statements, for Google and “Other Bets,” until February 1.

Still. Onward! A review of what we’ve looked at so far:

Here are the two ways to become an Alphabet company. One: Larry Page likes you and buys your company — or gives you one to run.

And two, should you not win the acquisitive affections of the Alphabet CEO: Go through Google X.

Projects: Self-driving car, Loon, Wing, Robotics, Makani Wind

Key execs: Astro Teller, “Captain of Moonshots”; Mike Cassidy, VP, Project Loon; Rich DeVaul, director of rapid evaluation; Obi Felten, head of Foundry

The five-year-old experimental lab marked Google’s first significant excursion from software and first investment in futuristic pipe-dream projects, its moonshots. For anxious investors, Google X was also shorthand for the company’s freewheeling spending — money sunk into initiatives that are unproven or that flopped, like Google Glass.

After the Alphabet reorg, Google X will not stop backing moonshots, but it is sharpening its focus to quell some of this anxiety. It is framing itself as Alphabet’s incubator, taking ambitious projects, taming them into viable businesses, then “graduating” them into standalone operations. It has also created tighter criteria for deciding when these projects should be put to rest, assembling a new group — called the Foundry — designed to steer moonshots through the life-or-death throes.

For starters, there’s a shorter name. It’s just “X” now, the parental moniker chopped off. And it has this nifty new logo that’s meant to capture the X blueprint of incubating a “radical solution” to a “really big problem in the world” that deploys some “breakthrough technology.”

The X logo
The X logo

In many ways, X will be Alphabet in miniature — sprouting out startups, only with its particular focus on hardware, something Google proper has not done well. As an incubator and standalone company, X may need to be more judicious and leaner than it once was. “It’s going to be much more scaled back,” said one former X employee.

Another person familiar with X said the lab’s outsized ambitions and size remain unchanged. However, the company will move forward with several new projects and without key Googlers that built the so-called “moonshot factor.”

After “Glassholes”

X already has some notable graduates from its ranks. There’s the Google Brain team, the deep learning experts who moved into Google’s sprawling research team in 2012; Project Insight, which built detailed indoor maps, moved to Maps that same year; and Life Sciences spun out as its own Alphabet company this summer, re-dubbing itself Verily.

However, X may be better known in the public for its dropout, Glass. A year ago, Google unceremoniously moved the face-computing device back into Google for a reboot, after a lukewarm reception. In a speech last March, Astro Teller, the X chief, attributed Glass’s fall to its marketing as a polished product. “We allowed — and sometimes encouraged — too much attention to the program,” he said.

Since its inception, X had evaluation metrics and a framework for graduating projects, but there was never strong consensus on the criteria, said former X employees. “Somebody would get too attached to the project and not kill it,” one said.

That responsibility now falls on the Foundry. The group, created this fall, is meant to “de-risk” projects born within X, assign them a dedicated manager and get them to market. Or kill them.

In the past, X borrowed business development personnel freely from Google, according to sources. It’s not clear if that will continue post-Alphabet. An X spokesperson would not comment on personnel.

More critically, however, in the past sixteen months X has lost a fair number of talented execs, including technical lead Mary Lou Jepsen and key operations experts Megan Smith, Claire Johnson and Chris O’Neill.

What’s in There

That said, X did score some pickups recently. Last month, the Alphabet company announced it was recruiting Google’s robotics divisions and a drone project.

The rather sizable robotics team, created from Google’s flurry of acquisitions two years ago, has been homeless for over a year since its one-time boss Andy Rubin departed. It’ll be incubated inside X. Project Titan, another acquisition, will join Project Wing, Google’s nascent drone delivery program.

Rounding out X is Project Loon, the Internet-blasting balloon initiative, and Makani, an acquired wind-energy company. The self-driving car project, the earliest moonshot uncovered at X, is expected to graduate into its own company this year.

When these projects graduate, though, it’s unclear if X gets any windfall from their successes, as other incubators might. If not, X just sucks capital from Google only to release projects once they near fiscal sustainability. An X spokesperson declined to comment on its revenue situation.

Who to Know

During the initial years of X, Google co-founder Sergey Brin was heavily involved in operations, according to multiple sources. But he has stepped back since the Alphabet announcement to work on the holding company, these people said, handing the X reins to Astro Teller, who has managed X since the lab’s co-founder Sebastian Thrun departed in 2014.

Don’t call Teller CEO, though. The idiosyncratic artificial intelligence PhD prefers “Captain of Moonshots.” (Hence the Foundry title — a cheeky nautical nod to metal casters who prepared ship parts.)

Teller works the speaking circuit, but a key deputy, Rich DeVaul, is less well-known outside Google. He runs the X rapid evaluation team and is credited with germinating several pie-in-the-sky projects. One former X-er called him an “extremely creative idea machine.”

Obi Felten, director of the Foundry, X (Photo by Zen Sekizawa)
Obi Felten, director of the Foundry, X (Photo by Zen Sekizawa)

One of those ideas was Project Loon, which, while not posting any revenue yet, has gained some impressive traction with telecom partnerships globally. DeVaul handed it off to Mike Cassidy. Co-founder of four startups that saw an exit, Cassidy is well respected inside Google and the broader tech world. Mo Gawdat, a business development veteran at Google, joined Loon in 2013 and now leads a team (X wouldn’t say how large) working across all the X projects.

Obi Felten is an up-and-comer inside X. She is heading up Foundry, where projects move after rapid evaluation and before hiring a manager. Felten spent six years on the European marketing team at Google (after running e-commerce for a jewelry retailer). A former X employee described her as an “all-around athlete” and noted that her position signals X is taking a more strategic approach to transitioning moonshots to market.

It’s a critical role, albeit one that still must report up to Teller and his core team, who carry more weight on X initiatives.

Others argued Felten certainly won’t call any major shots. The ultimate decision about which projects are iced, and when, will fall to familiar faces: Page and Brin.

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