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Why did two of Google’s most promising companies grow outside of Google?

Google could have owned Pokémon Go and self-driving trucks.

An 18-wheel truck driving down a highway reads, “Otto” and “Proudly brewed. Proudly self-driven.” Otto
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Quick: What do Pokémon Go and self-driving beer trucks have to do with each other?

Did you say Google? If so, you might cover Google for a living.

For the rest of you: Both Niantic, the company that makes Pokémon Go, and Otto, the self-driving truck company Uber bought this summer, both have roots in the search giant.

But they didn’t grow there.

Niantic started at Google, but spun out last year, when the company re-orged as Alphabet. Google still owns a stake in the company behind the most popular game of the year, but it could have owned the entire thing.

Otto didn’t start at Google/Alphabet, but its founders all spent a lot of time there. More to the point: Co-founder Anthony Levandowski was the guy who started up Google’s self-driving car program.

But Levandowski left Google at the end of last year, launched Otto out of stealth in May, and sold it to Uber in August.

My colleague Johana Bhuiyan argues that it’s not a coincidence that Google self-driving experts left Google to launch a self-driving company: “Otto was built out of a sort of PTSD of working at a technology company that never shipped,” she wrote a few months ago.

Now Uber is demoing Otto’s ability to go on a beer run.

So. What do you think about that, Google CEO Sundar Pichai?

Isn’t the whole point of the Google/Alphabet structure to give innovative Googlers the ability to build their own company without leaving the nest?

An analyst asked Pichai that question, more or less, on Google/Alphabet’s earnings call today.

If you’ve listened to a Google earnings call before, you know that Pichai didn’t give a particularly instructive answer.

But, for the record, here’s the one he did give: “I would say, overall, when I look across Google and Alphabet, the number of areas where we’ve been able to build world-class products and achieve scale and success — we today have over seven products that serve a billion users each — so I think our track record speaks there.

“And we generally want to encourage a culture of innovation, and that’s what we focus on. And I think it is fine that some of them happen outside. So we don’t view it as zero-sum game. And we’re very comfortable with how we approach it.”

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