Bill Maris, venture capitalist and chief executive officer of GV, speaks during a Studio 1.0 interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Section 32 is one of the newer bio investment funds on the block. It was founded by the first CEO of Google Ventures, Bill Maris, who also helped start Calico, a Google project (now Alphabet company) dedicated to anti-aging technology.
Maris, who started the fund in 2017, joined up with former diagnostics executive Mike Pellini and longtime life sciences investor Steve Kafka. Section 32 pays homage to Section 31, the intelligence agency from the Star Trek universe (Maris is a big Star Trek fan).
The firm, which raised its third fund earlier in the year, is now starting to staff up.
Maris looked to Google for many of its first additions, including communications specialist Claire Stapleton, a former employee who led an employee walkout in 2018. The walkout was in response to a report in The New York Times that Google had paid a $90 million severance package to former executive Andy Rubin, despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct while at the company. (Rubin has denied all wrongdoing.)
Section 32 is also bringing on Kenzo Fong Hing, a former head of marketing for Android, as an advisor to support its marketing and communications efforts; former Google recruiter Alice Cheung as the head of talent (“anyone who is connected to tens of thousands of engineers is someone you want on your team,” said Maris); and talent specialist Kimberly Shih, who hails from Rubin’s now-shuttered start-up, Essential.
Maris’ experiences at Google have helped guide some of his own thinking about the culture at Section 32, including to keep the group small enough to foster real connections within the team. Maris is a particular believer in the power of start-ups to get things done.
“When I was at Google setting up Google Ventures, I helped define this services-based venture model,” said Maris. “We’re focusing on the areas that are most impactful, and most requested by our portfolio companies — and it comes down to people.”
Maris has mostly kept quiet about his time at Google, but he did weigh in after the news broke that Alphabet Chief Legal Officer David Drummond had departed the company earlier this year after revelations that he’d dated an employee some years ago. At the time, Maris commented, “We have very, very different ideas about how to treat people, and this was a long time coming.”
In a phone interview, Maris praised Stapleton for her talent and courage calling out the company’s flaws, and said he enjoyed reading many of the company memos she wrote while they were both there.
“Claire is a wonderful person — and she was successful at Google for many years, but it’s undeniable the culture has changed significantly from when we both started,” he said. “It takes courage for someone to call out some of the things that company is doing or not doing that don’t align for the values that it espouses. I have a lot of respect for that.”
He also shared that he’s happy to be a sounding board for former Google employees who have similarly noticed shifts in the culture.
Calico ‘put a stake in the ground’
So far, Section 32 has invested in about 40 companies, including Auris, a microsurgical robotics company that sold to Johnson & Johnson; Alector, a therapeutics company focused on neurodegenerative diseases; and Vir, an infectious disease-focused company that is working on new vaccines, including for Covid19.
More broadly, the fund is also looking at machine learning, cybersecurity, oncology, infectious diseases, diagnostics and brain health.
Maris also remains interested in anti-aging technology, and he typically meets with three to five founders a week in the space. He doesn’t believe that Calico, which he helped start, has done enough yet to prevent new players from getting into the space.
Maris doesn’t think about anti-aging as “solving death,” as some have put it, but is more about helping people live better for longer. In his view, it’s linked with many of the diseases that humans live with today that decrease our life span.
“My objective there hasn’t been accomplished and I’m not seeing a lot of progress in that direction,” he said. “If your goal is to reduce suffering and help people live better lives, that’s an area worth looking at.”
Calico launched with a bang in 2013, when former Google CEO Larry Page issued a blog post to share that the company would be tackling aging. The company has stayed largely mysterious about its plans, and lost several big-name execs in 2018. Also in that year, it re-upped its multibillion-dollar research collaboration with pharma giant AbbVie.
Maris has mixed feelings about the whole thing. He does think that Calico has succeeded on the goal to normalize the field of anti-aging research, in part because of all the attention from the press. Maris said he started Calico to “put a stake in the ground to say this stuff is important and worth investing in, because we’re all going to be patients at some point.”
But he also says that he’s “disappointed” by the lack of information or peer-reviewed articles so far. Although he does believe that the statement has been made, at least.
Despite Section 32’s focus on biology, Maris said it isn’t changing its investment strategy much in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
For instance, telemedicine is particularly hot right now as patients are looking to avoid seeing a doctor in person. But Maris said the firm won’t be flocking to telemedicine just because it’s gaining more momentum.
“If anything, something like this causes us to pull back from trendy areas,” he said. “Trendy areas of venture investment tend to be overpriced or will underperform.”
‘Things that matter’
Maris also wants to apply funds toward larger social problems that we lack the will to solve politically, particularly improving access to health-care services in America.
“I see that we came up with about $3 trillion in a week,” he said, referring to the relief bill that passed in mid-May. “With that money, you could build a $5 billion hospital in every state, $10 billion to run and give everyone free health care,” he said. “You’d still have a few trillion left.”
“What this tells me is we have a distribution problem, not a money problem.”
He pointed to the smartphone revolution as a massive cultural and business change accomplished in a relatively short time, and wonders why society can’t do the same for health care.
“We somehow created a world where we are able to distribute these smartphone supercomputers to just about everyone,” Maris said. “That would have seemed miraculous not too long ago, but that system exists and it works. And everyone involved in that ecosystem is making money.”
“So if we have and can do that, we should be able to build a world that distributes health, water and medicine to everyone,” Maris said. “Silicon Valley has done a great job inventing new things and distributing technology in a way that the companies can benefit. They haven’t done a good job distributing other things that matter.”