The sad truth about Google's Calico initiative is that, for all the hype at the outset, what is going on under the hood looks very much like building a standard issue Big Pharma institution to work on commercializing drug discovery programs that won't make much of a difference to aging. The charitable view of that picture is that they are setting up a sustainable revenue stream in order to later investigate more relevant and interesting things. The more realistic view is that they intend to invest in what is currently the mainstream of aging research, a matter of trying to slightly alter the operation of metabolism to slightly slow down the aging process, and will never go beyond that. There are scores of larger companies capable of doing relevant and interesting things in aging, but they never go beyond tinkering with drug discovery to produce marginal therapies; once a revenue stream and mode of operation is established there is little incentive to do more.
This all suggests that the way in which disruptive ventures working on methods of rejuvenation gain traction with Calico is no different than the methods of gaining traction with the rest of Big Pharma: bootstrap the production of technology demonstrations that work. Gain support through the slow process of networking and incremental progress in research. Become the mainstream. Large scale funding is unimaginative and almost never backs radical new directions until all the excitement is done and the new new thing is obviously taking over. That is simply the way things are, and it is why our grassroots efforts to raise research funding and gain greater attention to the cause continue to be very important.
For the first year of its existence, all we knew about Calico was that the company had 'moonshot goals' and a team of scientific superstars. However, in September 2014 it finally sprang into action by announcing two research collaborations. The first was with AbbVie (a global, research-based biopharmaceutical company) and aimed to 'accelerate the discovery, development and commercialization of new therapies.' The two companies then immediately invested in the creation of a new research and development facility in San Francisco focused on aging and age-related diseases. Initially, AbbVie and Calico provided $250 million each to fund this project, and it was agreed that both sides would potentially contribute an additional $500 million in the future. The two also agreed to share the costs and profits equally.
The second collaboration was with the UT Southwestern Medical Center and 2M, to advance research and drug development for neurodegenerative disorders caused by the aging and death of nerve cells. Basically, Calico managed to muscle in on a deal which already been made between UT Southwestern and 2M concerning the licensing of P7C3 compounds (which had the potential to combat neurodegeneration). 2M and Calico entered into a new license agreement under which Calico took chief responsibility for developing and commercializing the compounds resulting from the research program. Calico no doubt persuaded 2M to agree to the new deal by promising to fund research laboratories in the Dallas area (where 2M is based) and elsewhere to support the program.
All went quiet again until March 2015, when The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard entered into a partnership with Calico, concerning the genetics of aging and early-stage drug discovery. The partnership aimed to support several efforts at the Broad to advance the understanding of age-related diseases and to propel the translation of these findings into new therapeutics. The Institute agreed to use its genetics expertise and novel drug-discovery tools in pursuit of goals shared with Calico.
In the same month Calico formed a partnership with QB3, a University of California institute specialising in the advancement of biotechnological innovation. The purpose of this partnership was to conduct research into longevity and age-related diseases and, in the process of doing so, foster an interdisciplinary community of scientists in the relevant fields. Funding from Calico was to support QB3 research projects focused on aging; some in collaboration with Calico, others led solely by QB3. In exchange for providing the funds, Calico acquired the option to claim exclusive rights to discoveries made under the sponsored research agreement.
The third partnership made in March was with UC San Francisco (UCSF) (a University of California health sciences campus), on a project to develop potential therapies for cognitive decline. Under the agreement, Calico received an exclusive license to technology discovered in the laboratory of Peter Walter, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF. This technology could potentially address the damage to cells caused by the Integrated Stress Response (ISR) mechanism. For an an undisclosed up-front fee, UCSF allowed Calico to take responsibility for further research, development and commercialization of the resulting therapeutics.
By April 2015 it was clear that Calico was splashing the cash in order to facilitate the formation of partnerships. For this reason, Calico started to become more tight-lipped about the financial aspect of its deals. In fact, they categorically refused to disclose the financial terms of a new partnership with the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. This partnership was to support research into longevity and age-related diseases. Calico was permitted to cherry-pick innovative research projects at the Institute and, in exchange for funding, obtain exclusive rights to the discoveries made.
Calico's most recent partnership was announced in July 2015 with AncestryDNA (an industry leader in consumer genetics). This partnership aimed to investigate the heredity of human lifespan. The two companies planned to evaluate anonymized data from millions of public family trees, as well as AncestryDNA's database of over one million genetic samples. Calico would then use the findings from the analysis to develop and commercialize potential therapeutics. Again, Calico refused to disclose just how much it had parted with in order to get its hands on AncestryDNA's data.
Looking at Calico's impressive array of employees and collaborations, it would seem, at the moment, that Calico is merely trying to make money using other people's knowledge. However, Chief Science Officer at SENS, Aubrey de Grey, claims that this is just a facade: "they are doing a bunch of highly lucrative irrelevant short-term stuff that lets them get on with unlucrative critical long-term stuff without distraction."