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Google Executive Brings Big Data Skills to Human Longevity

A San Diego startup founded by human genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter has recruited Franz Och, former leader of Google Translate and expert in machine learning, to find new ways to crunch and interpret human sequencing data.

Human Longevity Inc., also referred to as HLI, is building one of the world’s most comprehensive databases to interpret information about genomic and proteomic data. With this information, the company hopes to help light the way for pharmaceutical companies to develop personalized treatments based on a person’s genetic information and medical history, aiming to tackle the problems associated with aging.

Och has worked as a research scientist at Google Inc. for the past decade, leading the machine translation group, Google Translate, to develop better ways for computers to translate languages. The Google Translate technology takes data from hundreds of millions of documents converted by human translators and detects patterns in translation. As the technology crunches the data, the machine “learns” the patterns and is able to quickly apply the knowledge to make educated guesses about new translations. Google Translate is not always accurate, but it can make intelligent conclusions in a matter of milliseconds.

This process of teaching machines to seek patterns in big data is the same technology HLI intends to implement when building its human sequencing database.

“I consider HLI a big data and [information technology] company rather than a biotech company,” Venter said. “The challenge is going to be in interpreting this raw data, and Franz has already tackled a very similar algorithm at

Google Translate.”

Och is joining HLI as chief data scientist. Instead of moving to San Diego, Och has opted to remain in Mountain View, where he is building a team. Och will recruit about 100 scientists for this project, starting with about 20 new recruits this year, Venter said.

“We’re going to need the best and the brightest from the areas of computer science, machine learning and big data generation and interpretation as well as those from biology, genomics and bioinformatics to reach a new level of understanding of this massive database,” Och said. “I look forward to working with Craig and the team at HLI to enhance our understanding of human biology, to better manage the healthy aging process and thus increase the healthy human lifespan.”

Background

Venter is known for being one of the first to sequence an entire human genome and for creating the first cell with a synthetic genome. He is chairman and CEO of HLI, titles he also holds at Synthetic Genomics Inc., a La Jolla-based company that genetically engineers organisms like algae so they can be used for food, chemicals and fuel.

Venter co-founded the HLI in 2013 with Robert Hariri, who previously was CEO, president and director of

Celgene Cellular Therapeutics, and Peter

Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation. The founders intended to meld the areas of stem cell, microbic and genomics research to create a broad picture of the aging process, disease and the secrets to longevity.

“HLI is going to change the way medicine is practiced by helping shift to a more preventive, genome-based medicine model,” Venter said. “Our goal is not necessarily lengthening life, but extending a healthier, high-performing and more productive life span.”

The company raised $70 million in Series A funding earlier this year, most of it from wealthy individuals including HLI director Bryan Johnson. The largest of those investors is K.T. Lim, a Malaysian billionaire who runs gambling conglomerate Genting Berhad and has also invested in Venter’s other company, Synthetic Genomics. Funding has also come from Illumina Inc., from which HLI buy two sequencing machines earlier this year at $10 million apiece.

HLI has established collaborative research and development partnerships with the University of California, San Diego; Metabolon; and the J. Craig Venter

Institute. Metabolon, based in North Carolina, provides HLI with information about key chemicals in a patient’s blood.

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