Google’s Calico appoints new machine learning chief

Google’s ageing therapeutics and research company Calico has bolstered its computational research offerings with the latest big name appointment in the pharma industry.

Daphne Koller, former president and co-founder of online education platform Coursera, will join the company in the newly established role of Chief Computing Officer as the company builds a computational biology and machine learning team.

Koller and her team will work with Calico researchers to develop machine learning tools capable of analysing large biological and medical data sets to gain a deeper understanding of longevity and developing new interventions to extend a health lifespan.

“We have always believed that understanding how we age and developing therapeutics to address aging and age-related diseases would require a coming together of the research from great biologists and geneticists with the incredible advances that are being made in computational biology and machine learning,” said Arthur Levinson, CEO and founder of Calico.

“Over the past three years, we have focused on building a world-class team of scientists who are studying the biological pathways of aging. With Daphne, we are bringing to Calico not only one of the world’s foremost experts in machine learning, but someone with a deep passion for understanding how these new technologies could bring forth insights into the biology of aging and disease.”

Koller brings with her an impressive pedigree, co-founding the educational platform Coursera as well as receiving numerous awards during her career. In 2014, Koller was recognized as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People; was voted one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People for 2012; and featured in Huffington Post’s 100 Game Changers for 2010. She also serves as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship at the invitation of President Obama and Secretary Pritzker.

“High-throughput experimental protocols are transforming biology into a data science. But the potential of the massive data sets that are and that could be produced will only be fully tapped via the development of powerful computational tools,” said Koller. “I am looking forward to leading this initiative, and building a world-class team that can help analyze these data and make a significant impact on human health.”

For Calico, Koller’s appointment bolsters an already star-studded executive team, including former Genentech executive vice president Hal Barron, his co-Genentech colleague David Botstein, former director of computing at Stanford Medicine Ben Passarelli, and world-renowned ageing researcher Cynthia Kenyon. As a result, many in the industry are keeping a close eye on Calico’s movements.

The company’s development has taken some time though. Founded three years ago, this is the first time Calico has made an appointment truly focussed on integrating machine learning into its operations.

Outside of Calico, Google’s DeepMind Health is another Alphabet-owned company integrating machine learning with the ongoing development of its AlphaGo artificial intelligence.

Currently focussed on improving the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) – leading to its partnership with the Moorsfield Eye Hospital to help improve the diagnosis of eye conditions – AlphaGo’s potential for making waves in the pharma industry is causing plenty of excitement.

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