Eric Schmidt: Alphabet is "very confident" in biotech division Verily

The chairman of Google's parent company reassures shareholders that its biotech division has strong oversight in place and will produce results.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

Following a report that Alphabet's biotech division Verily is floundering, Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt on Wednesday reassured shareholders that Verily is on its way to producing breakthroughs.

"With respect to Verily, we have put in place a very strong oversight group," Schmidt said at Alphabet's annual shareholder meeting. He said Google's parent company is "very, very confident" in Verily's approaches, controls and the review processes that will lead to breakthroughs.

Earlier this week, the health and science site Stat published an investigation concluding that Verily's signature products are plagued by "serious, if not fatal, scientific shortcomings." Due to the scathing Stat report, some have drawn comparisons between Verily and Theranos, the $9B blood-testing startup now under criminal investigation for allegedly misleading investors.

The Stat report specifically referenced products like Verily's glucose-detecting smart contact lens, but Schmidt expressed confidence in them on Wednesday.

"If you're one of the many people who will have diabetes in America... this is going to be a lifesaver," he said about the contact lens.

Schmidt on Wednesday also briefly talked up Nest, the Internet of Things division of Alphabet that's faced recent turmoil. Last week, Nest's founding CEO Tony Fadell announced he was stepping down. Schmidt noted that Nest is growing at a rate of 50 percent year-over-year.

The executive largely spoke to shareholders in broad terms about the need for society to collectively pursue moonshot initiatives, and he framed the development of self-driving cars in this way.

"I'll say it as bluntly as I can: 32,800 people are scheduled to die on American highways this year," he said, suggesting self-driving cars will make roads significantly safer. "Why is this not a national crisis? I am, frankly, beside myself on the lack of consensus on how important this problem is."

Pressed by shareholders on how Alphabet plans to handle the inefficient regulatory process, Schmidt said these were "very difficult future questions." Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted that Google has had success getting products into the hands of users by directly engaging with rulemakers and communities involved.

Schmidt, like several other corporate leaders invested in autonomous vehicles, said he believes that it will be "years, not decades" before the vehicles are on the road. However, "that is very much dependent on regulation," he said.

Schmidt on Wednesday also highlighted Google Assistant, noting that Google wants to be "helping you on a day to day basis." He also noted other areas of research they're investing in, such as augmented reality. He called Google Glass a "first attempt at that."

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