I wasn't there, however,
to talk about investment strategies or Google Venture's portfolio. I was there to ask Maris why he and other Valley leaders weren't taking their brand of innovation -
and tech-hipness--to help solve public policy problems in desperate need of
Or to put in terms of a generation past, I wanted to find out why America's smartest in the current generation are so far removed from John F. Kennedy's call to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country". In the 1960s this launched a wave of participation in government among those that writer David Halberstam once dubbed the "best and the brightest".
Lean and compact with a
three-day beard, Maris looked even younger than his 37 years. He wore the Valley's de rigueur jeans and t-shirt, sitting in
a corner office where he and his team annually doll out $200 million in investment
funds provided by Google.
Dozens of portfolio
companies listed on the fund's website cover the categories of digital, energy,
gaming, mobile, and life sciences. And many have whimsical, Google-esque names
like Bionic Panda Games, Humanoid, Rocket Lawyer, and Crittercism.
In life sciences they have invested in well-known companies like the genetic
testing business 23andme and Iperian, a company using new stem cell
technologies to develop therapies for disease.
I spoke with Maris for
over an hour. In this first part of a multi-part chat, we talked about why the
Google Ventures culture seems uninterested in public policy and politics,
particularly with the life science and healthcare--a topic Maris knows
something about, having studied neuroscience at Middlebury College.
As we talked, I watched a
constant bustle of activity through the glass walls of Maris' office as the
mostly youngish staff worked at computers, chatted with one another or on smart
phones, and moved to and from meetings. Fifty people work here, said Maris, mostly
as advisors to portfolio companies in areas like engineering, design,
marketing, and communications.
What do you think is the biggest health problem
in the world today?
A hard question, there is
so much. There are environmental threats to health; there are internal threats
to health--genetic conditions, viral threats, diseases like cancer and
Parkinson's. And then there are societal and global ones, like poverty and lack
of nutrition. And unknown viral threats, everything from a new kind of
influenza to hemorrhagic fever. In terms of a macro-macro level, one thing I
worry about is an asteroid hitting the earth.
Are you investing in an anti-asteroid company?
Well, send me the pitch.
I'd love to see it.
There's an absurdity to
it, but asteroids have hit earth, and it will happen again. A lot
of these scenarios are sort of funny until they actually happen. Like a dangerous virus coming out of nowhere. It's unlikely but also significantly impactful,
so it's worth thinking about. We want to invest in companies that matter.
Whether it's an anti-asteroid company or a company that's going to help us understand