In 2013, Time magazine ran a cover story titled Google vs. Death about Calico, a then-new Google-run health venture focused on understanding aging — and how to beat it. “We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done,” Google CEO Larry Page told Time.
But how exactly would Calico help humans live longer, healthier lives? How would it invest its vast $1.5 billion pool of money? Beyond sharing the company’s ambitious mission — to better understand the biology of aging and treat aging as a disease — Page was vague.
I recently started poking around in Silicon Valley and talking to researchers who study aging and mortality, and discovered that four years after its launch, we still don’t know what Calico is doing.
I asked everyone I could about Calico — and quickly learned that it’s an impenetrable fortress. Among the little more than a dozen press releases Calico has put out, there were only broad descriptions of collaborations with outside labs and pharmaceutical companies — most of them focused on that overwhelmingly vague mission of researching aging and associated diseases. The media contacts there didn’t so much as respond to multiple requests for interviews.
People who work at Calico, Calico’s outside collaborators, and even folks who were no longer with the company, stonewalled me.
We should pause for a moment to note how strange this is. One of the biggest and most profitable companies in the world has taken an interest in aging research, with about as much funding as NIH’s entire budget for aging research, yet it’s remarkably opaque.
Google also prides itself for being a leader on transparency and for its open culture. And we’re living in a time when the norms in science, particularly biomedical science, are centered around openness and data sharing. But these values have somehow eluded Calico.
For now, I think it’s safe to say Google has not solved aging. Or if it did, they haven’t told anybody.
Calico only offers the public the vaguest details about what they’re doing
It’s not unusual for new startups to be stealthy for a period while they get going, but there’s usually some public statement with specific details about the technology or science being developed, strategies and targets. That Calico won’t say what it’s doing bothers leading aging researchers. They expressed confusion or frustration about Calico’s stealthiness, and said the secrecy is not productive for science.
Eric Topol is a cardiologist who studies aging and the director of Scripps Translational Science Institute. Topol knows some of the scientists at Calico from their pre-Calico days. “They’re hyper secretive,” he said. Since they moved to Google, he can’t seem to reach them. “I have invited them to speak at our program we have on genomic medicine. They say ‘no, they can’t talk about what they’re doing.’ I am not sure why that’s the case.”
There were no clinical trials or patents filed publicly under the Calico brand that I could find, and out of the 22 papers published by the company and its affiliates, only about half related to aging and many were review articles (not original research).
Nir Barzilai, a geneticist and one of the leading researchers in aging based at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said the publications didn’t give him any special insights into what Calico is up to. “Our field is interested in delaying aging and by that, delaying disease. [It seems] they are not doing that,” he said. “It’s weird they don’t come to us, look at our patents … We have resources, we are eager to do partnerships and form bio-techs. And nobody from Calico talks to us.”
Other top researchers on aging told me much the same. “I don’t interact with them,” Felipe Sierra, director of the division of aging biology at NIH’s National Institute on Aging, said. “They don’t want to interact with me. I ignore them as much as they ignore me.” He also invited Calico scientists to present at NIH. “They come to the meeting but they don’t talk about what they are doing … [They] wouldn’t even talk about general directions [of their research].”
The problem with Calico’s secrecy
There are a few potential explanations for Calico’s secrecy. Among them: that Calico is just waiting for a big reveal. A December article in the MIT Technology Review, which was also scant on details about Calico’s anti-aging science, hinted that might be the case:
[David] Botstein [the Calico Chief Scientific Officer] says a “best case” scenario is that Calico will have something profound to offer the world in 10 years. That time line explains why the company declines media interviews. “There will be nothing to say for a very long time, except for some incremental scientific things. That is the problem.”
But avoiding media hype does not require secrecy among scientific colleagues. If Calico’s scientists were truly interested in pushing the boundaries of science, they might think about using some of the best practices that have been developed to that end: transparency, data sharing, and coordinating with other researchers so they don’t go down redundant and wasteful paths.
As Topol said, “Secretive research is passé. The world has moved on to fully demonstrate the value of openness, transparency, and avoidance of insular thinking.”
There are other possible explanations for the stealthiness. A recent news release from Calico announced a partnership with C4 Therapeutics to work on coming up with drugs for "diseases of aging," such as cancer — one of a number of drug company partnership’s Calico has formed. If Calico’s now focused on drug development, then a degree of secrecy might make sense. (Drug companies typically develop their products quietly to stay ahead of the competition.)
But researchers don’t buy that explanation, either. “The researchers [Calico] hired are using models such as yeasts, nematodes, and naked mole rats,” said Barzilai. “These are not the models that are relevant for drug development.” Developing cures also doesn’t fall in line with the company’s original mission — to treat aging as a genetic disease instead of hunting for treatments for age-related diseases.
Another potential reason for the lack of transparency — the one I find most compelling — is that it’s the company culture. Art Levinson, the CEO of Calico, is also chair of the board of Apple Inc. and was close to Steve Jobs, who was renowned for his clandestine approach to research and development and running a business. It’s possible that Levinson has made secrecy part of Calico’s DNA, the way it’s part of Apple’s DNA.
Perhaps Calico will one day justify its secrecy, Topol said. “But at this point,” he added, “I don’t understand it.” Potentially withholding information about advances in biomedical science or cures for diseases is unacceptable: Lives are ultimately at stake. “Anything that slows down progress in biomedical research can’t be condoned.”
For that reason, I’d like to humbly invite Calico or people who have worked with the company to share what they are up to. I promise we won’t hype it.
Have information about Calico? You can send me tips over email at firstname.lastname@example.org or secure PGP. (My key: F65A 5539 A081 B01E 1E8D 498D 6489 E570 AEAB E972)
Update Friday April 28, 2:34 p.m.: Thanks to reader tips and additional searches in PubMed, we’ve located and linked to several Calico papers we weren’t aware of when we first published this story on Thursday. I flagged the papers with the researchers quoted in this story who said they did not change their assessment of Calico.