Top Talent Leaving Google's Verily After Working with Divisive and Compulsive Leader CEO Andrew Conrad
March 28, 2016
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
Google’s Life Sciences spinoff, which adopted the new name Verily in December 2015, and launched about three years ago with a lot of promise and hype, is showing indications that the company is facing internal turmoil, possibly because of its leader, Andrew Conrad.
Verily was the first of Google’s numerous “moon shot” companies to stand alone under its new Alphabet umbrella. Although the company has a broad focus, it appears to be attempting to merge big data and healthcare, while also developing various biological data monitors, such as a contact lens that can monitor a diabetic’s blood glucose level.
In December, it had announced seven medical partnerships, two research projects, and one acquisition. Not a lot of specifics, otherwise, have been released about exactly what the company is doing. There are various reasons for that. According to a STAT article, apparently any employee speaking with a journalist without permission can be fired. Also, Verily is set up as a limited liability company, so it doesn’t have to release the names or duties of board members, which it has chosen not to do.
But the company seems to be losing a lot of top talent, and indications are the brain drain may be largely caused by the company’s chief executive officer, Andrew Conrad.
Since 2014, a number of top Verily staffers have either left the company entirely or returned to the mother ship, Google. One of those included Diane Tang, a “Google fellow,” a rare and coveted position of the company’s top technical roles, returned to Google, as did Kobust Jooste, one of Verily’s first employees, Michael Pearson, a top manager, and Karl Townsend, a leading engineer.
Townsend, according to STAT, “decided to leave along with nearly every other member of the sizeable team that built Verily’s ‘connectivity bridge,’ a product that connects medical devices to the cloud, another former employee said. Conrad suddenly lost interest in selling or further developing the technology, this person said, and while team members could have stayed, they worried about Conrad’s fickle leadership.”
Others, like Mark Lee, a Verily researcher, left to join a biotech startup. Jean Wang, a Google engineer, left for Amazon.com. Babak Parvis, inventor of the Google Glass wearable computer, and co-founder of Verily’s contact lens project, also headed to Amazon.
Conrad has something of a caustic reputation. “We used to joke and call (Conrad) the ‘seagull of science,’” said Michael Luther, former president of a North Carolina research institute that Conrad helped found. “He used to fly in, squawk, crap over everything, and fly away.”
Conrad was a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles in the late 1980s. There he met Peter Schmid, a genetics researcher who taught Conrad lab techniques and molecular cloning on his way to a PhD in anatomy and cell biology. Together they founded the National Genetics Institutes in Los Angeles. Conrad acted as chief scientific officer.
The company marketed genetics tests for HIV and other diseases, but there were internal conflicts which appear to be over credits on patents. Schmid claims he was often left out of the patent filings, “despite the fact that I had the idea, discussed it, and sent a fax with details to Andy,” he told STAT in an email. But he was able to prove that he was the originator of the concepts to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which then added his name as co-inventors on the patents.
In 2000, Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp) , now the largest clinical diagnostics company in the U.S. and probably the world, bought National Genetics for $56 million. Conrad and Schmid stayed with LabCorp. Conrad left in 2013.
Conrad then spent some time in Hawaii, was briefly married to the TV actress Courtney Thorne-Smith, and worked with David Murdock, perhaps best known for owning Castle & Cooke, which owned Dole Food Company. That relationship fell on hard times in 2013 when Conrad and other board members blocked Murdock’s attempt to buy out other shareholders in Dole. In a court document, Murdock told Conrad, “it sure as hell pisses me off to think that you didn’t call me and tell me what it is going on with you. I’m not accustomed to having a friend double-cross me.”
It’s hard to say whether people fleeing Verily are doing so entirely because of Conrad—probably a factor—or simply because that’s the way things operate in the go-go-get-ahead biotech startup world. The company is moving from the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. to facilities near the San Francisco airport that can accommodate 1,000 workers.
It’s also possible that Conrad’s management style fits in well with Google’s often chaotic, ambitious and disruptive style, but not everyone else is happy working in that kind of environment. In a New York Times article the Google Glass product, the company’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, was widely recognized as having “project attention deficit disorder.” That is to say, he obsessed about one project, lost interest and headed off to another. Which sounds like some of the criticism of Andrew Conrad.
But Rob Enderle, a technology analyst, told STAT, that the concern is about top talent leaving so soon—“if they’re getting off the roller coaster before it gets to the first dip,” there’s likely something wrong, and what’s wrong might be a lack of confidence in leadership.