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Google Is Interested in Your Health, But Deterred by Regulations

In an extensive interview with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page explained why regulations are hampering improvements in health care.
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Google may seem like it wants to be everywhere, but there's at least one sector that it's avoiding for now:  Health care.

In a rare joint interview, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page sat down last week with technology venture capitalist Vinod Khosla at Khosla Ventures' annual summit to discuss privacy, artificial intelligence and Google's future as a health company.

"Health needs to be disturbed and highly accessible broadly, not just at the hospital," Khosla said, noting that mobile is the perfect platform to transform the way we approach health care. "Can you imagine Google becoming a health company, which may be a larger business than the search business or the media business?" he asked Brin and Page.

While the two discuss projects aimed at updating our collective health -- Brin mentioned Google's  contact lenses that monitor glucose levels  (they're coming along "pretty well, I'm very excited," he said), and Page alluded to the more extensive Calico project,  tasked with prolonging human longevity  -- the answer, for now, appears to be: Not yet, at least not in a big way.

Related: This New Genetics Startup Wants to Make '100' the New '60'

Here's Brin: “Generally, health is just so heavily regulated, it’s just a painful business to be in. It’s not necessarily how I want to spend my time. Even though we have some health projects, we’ll be doing it to a certain extent. But I think the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high, I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.”

The sentiment – disruptive innovation is hampered by sluggish regulations –  isn't new. But Brin's response is interesting, especially when viewed through the lens of 23andMe, the genetic profiling startup that was co-founded by Brin's estranged wife, Anne Wojcicki.

A recent  of Wojcicki dubbed 23andMe the 'Google of spit,' an accurate metaphor. The company aims to use the principles of Big Data to "solve health" by gathering the genetic information of a large pool of individuals (collected via mail-in spit tests), from which it can extrapolate connections, insights and, ultimately, cures. “The rest of your life is optimized because of Big Data,” Wojcicki told New York Magazine. “But it isn’t for health care, and that’s fundamentally the most important thing for you.”

Related: In Taking Aim at 23andMe, Regulators Missed the Mark

23andMe analyzed the genes of over 650,000 individuals before it ran afoul of regulators. ( Last November, the company was shut down by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency said it was concerned about "the public health consequences of inaccurate results" from its mail-in spit tests.)

Here's Page's answer to Khosla's question:

"I am really excited about the possibility of data also, to improve health. But that's-- I think what Sergey's saying, it's so heavily regulated. It's a difficult area. I can give you an example. Imagine you had the ability to search people's medical records in the U.S. Any medical researcher can do it. Maybe they have the names removed. Maybe when the medical researcher searches your data, you get to see which researcher searched it and why. I imagine that would save 10,000 lives in the first year. Just that. That's almost impossible to do because of HIPPA. I do worry that we regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end."

What Page is suggesting? That's exactly what Wojcicki was trying to do with 23andMe. And, as with many of Google's projects, from a connected home to a driverless car, her mission raises questions about safety and privacy while simultaneously offering up the possibility of radical, life-saving innovation.

Related: The Real Reason Why Google Bought Nest for $3.2 Billion

Google heavily invested in 23andMe, but judging from Brin and Page's brief response to Khosla's sweeping question, when it comes to disrupting the way we approach health care, the tech company is staying out of the arena for now.

You can watch the full video below and read the full transcript  here.