Searching for Google’s future (Part 3) - Gene genie

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Searching for Google’s future (Part 3)


Google’s big ventures

Description: Google: Google Ventures

Google can tell a lot about us by the things we buy, but the reverse also applies: you can tell a lot about Google’s priorities by the firms it acquires. In the last year Google has bought price comparison tools, discount coupon services, loyalty card systems, voice recognition and facial recognition technology, and various social media services. It’s a focused selection that’s clearly biased towards mobile devices, mobile content, mobile advertising and mobile payments, and it’s clear where Google believes its near-future growth will come from.

For the longer term, we need to look at a different hit of Google: Google Ventures. Established in 2009, Google Ventures’ mission is to invest some of Google’s money in exciting new businesses, businesses that don’t necessarily fit with Google’s current business strategy.

Google says it doesn’t expect firms it invests in to use its products or change their relationship with Google, and it denies that Ventures is “a strategic vehicle to make future acquisitions easier’ Nevertheless, some of its investments are in exactly the kinds of companies it likes to buy For example, as “the world’s leading portfolio of coupon and deal websites”, WhaleShark Media would work with Google Wallet and Offers, while VigLink’s link tracking system would get on well with Google Analytics. However, while app developers and cloud computing services are well represented, some of its investments are much more ambitious.

Google Ventures investments tend to fall into one of five categories: consumer products, business services, education, green technology and medical science. It’s a diverse mix, but they all have something in common: Google hopes to make money from them all.

The first two categories, consumer products and business services, are where you’ll find the websites and tools that are closest to Google’s existing applications. Google has invested in Kabam, which publishes massively multiplayer social games (MMSGs); Miso, which is for engaging with other people while watching TV; lawPivot, a legal Q&A service for startups; Rocket Lawyer, an online legal advice shop; HubSpot, which makes marketing software; SweetLabs, which brings web apps to the desktop; ShopBot, which tracks the price of products in online shops; SCVNGR, which adds a gaming layer to real-world location data; and Signpost, a crowdsourced deal-spotting service. Other investments in this category include mobile to-do lists, cloud services for mobile app developers, web data timeline services and ant malware technology.

The educational category includes some interesting sites and services too. For example, there’s Airy Labs, which creates educational games for primary school-age children; English Central, a cloud-based language learning system that uses web video to improve users’ skills; and Miso Media, whose software helps teach people to play musical instruments. In the case of Miso Media, Google Ventures is one of several backers, including Justin Timberlake. You can see why Google decided to invest in these firms. They’re good ideas, and in many cases they’re already doing decent business. The big bets, however, are in green tech and medical science.

Gene genie

It’s perhaps fitting that a firm whose mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” is interested in the most useful data of all: DNA. In 2009, Google founder Sergey Brin invested $10million in genome firm 23andme. It wasn’t the first time he and his company had helped the startup: Google invested S3.9million in the firm in 2007, and sonic of that money was used to repay a previous Brin loan of $2.6million. Google isn’t the only investor - others include giant pharmaceutical corporations and venture capital firms - but it’s definitely the best-connected: 23andme was set up by Ann Wojcicki, who happens to be Sergey Brin’s wife.

23andme’s mission is “to be the world’s trusted source of personal genetic information”, and it takes its name from the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up the human genome. By combining DNA analysis and web-based tools, 23andme can help trace ancestors or work out whether you’re likely to get diabetes. Simply provide some saliva in the kit, send it off, wait a few weeks and then log in to find out all about your genes.

Google has also invested in another DNA analysis firm, Navigenics, which offers genetic analysis and counselling for people who want to know their genetic risk factors or whether their DNA will make some treatments more effective than others.

Description: Google Wallet

Google’s driving ambition

Why is Google making driverless cars?

Self-driving cars seem an odd thing for Google to work on, but you can’t fault its commitment - its robotic vehicles have racked up hundreds of thousands of miles. The seven cars use Google’s enormous data centres and mapping technology to work out where they are, and while every car has a human driver to prevent disaster, the long term vision is for cars that get you around without human involvement.

What’s in it for Google? Pundits have suggested that self- driving cars would boast Android interfaces and on-board internet connections, letting you search the web, access Gmail, watch YouTube or catch up with Google Reader while you commute, and CEO Larry Page admitted as much at September’s Google Zeitgeist conference. “People spend two hours a day in the US commuting, which is a huge amount of time they don’t need to be spending,” he said. “They could be doing useful things in that time, or watching TV, or looking at ads, or whatever.” However, project head Sebastian Thrun says it’s more altruistic. Writing on the official Google blog, he said that “Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by publicly changing car use.” Thrun’s motivation is more personal - when he was 18, his best friend died in a car accident, and he has devoted his life to improving car safety.

Creating self-driving cars is an enormous challenge that involves video cameras, radar sensors and laser range finders in addition to GPS and mapping software, and while Google’s cars have successfully navigated around a small number of locations, it’ll be at least a decade before self-driving cars are effective and cheap enough for everyday use. Even then, we might not accept them: while hundreds of people die on the roads every day (the US Department of Transportation says one person dies on American roads every 16 minutes) it isn’t hard to imagine a single driverless car fatality causing demands for the technology to be banned.

Everything’s gone green

As one of the planet’s biggest computer users, Google has long worried about its environmental footprint (not to mention its electricity bill), and has designed its data centres to use as little energy as Possible. It says its data centres use 50 per cent less energy than the norm, and that 25 per cent of its energy comes from renewable sources. i1at figure is expected increase next year.

Google isn’t just interested in its own carbon footprint though - it’s interested in yours too. The firm has invested millions in renewable energy projects, and Google Ventures also invested in technologies that could reduce energy use further. It’s put money into Transphorm, which creates power modules that eliminate up to 90 per cent of electricity conversions — modules that could he used in air conditioners, hybrid cars and solar panels - and helped Next Autoworks with its plans for a safe, high-quality, fuel-efficient car for the American market, while Silver Spring Networks’ smart grid technology is designed to help firms monitor and improve their energy efficiency while reducing their carbon emissions.

Googie Ventures is interested in smaller steps, too: it’s invested in RelayRides, the world’s first neighbour- to-neighbour car sharing service, which could help reduce congestion. If climate change still ends up cooking the planet, Google still has a role - it’s invested in WeatherBill, which provides “technologically advanced weather insurance products”.

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