Deciphering Google’s Calico Cat

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Once again, Google is getting back into the health business. After shutting down its previously failed healthcare venture, Google Health in June of 2011, it’s tossing its preverbal hat back into the ring with the launch of the oddly named Calico.

 From the Larry Page’s G+ page: “I’m excited to announce Calico, a new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.”

Here’s what we do know. Art Levinson, Chairman and former CEO of Genentech will head up Calico. Art also sits on the board of Apple and won’t be giving up any of his day jobs to run this project. That in and of itself should tell you how much emphasis Calico will carry with everyone mentioned in the press release. Beyond that, the actual details about the program are non-existent. That Google is orchestrating on an all out media blitz promoting a program that’s only oddly named vaporware at this point is a curious one indeed.

One little tidbit, buried in Larry’s G+ page is that Bill Maris, Managing Partner of Google Ventures, brought the project to life. My guess is that Calico isn’t so much a new line of business for Google, but a VC fund to invest in other start-ups.

Time magazine took the hyperbole to an extreme, labeling the venture “Google vs. Death.” If you’re hoping to read the article, which is locked behind Time’s pay wall, for some of the details of the venture, nay, ANY details about the venture, don’t waste your time. There aren’t any.

There’s a lot of work going on in the tech sector to extend life and slow down aging. Google probably sees two routes to success here. One way might be to diversify their core business by being the lead investors in the companies most likely to drive the next wave of technological innovation for healthcare in the U.S. It could be immensely profitable if it pans out. Google certainly has the cash flow to make some educated guesses, even if they never do turn a profit.

But Google is in the information business. More specifically, selling information it has about you. As the saying goes, “when something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” Google Health was an attempt to encourage users to upload all kinds of data about their health and wellness. With that data, Google would more effectively be able identify you and your physical and emotional state of being as a means of selling advertising to brands, with that targeting coming at a premium price. The bad news for Google was that it never took off.

Whatever Google’s thinking with Calico, you have to believe the targeting ability of for tracking a users health and wellness as a means of delivering more effective ads will eventually enter the consideration set. It is their core business after all.

But that day is probably a long was off. We’ve seen Google products arrive with much pomp and circumstance only to die a quiet death. Google Wave anyone? Buzz? eBay has s ton of Nexus Q’s available on the cheap. Calico, for now, is much ado about nothing, but we’ll see what the next announcement brings us in terms of details. Hopefully it will be more than just a funny name.

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