Bill Maris, founder of Section 32 LLC
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Section 32 is one of the new organic investment funds on the block. It was founded by the first CEO of Google Ventures, Bill Maris, who also helped launch Calico, a Google project (now company Alphabet) dedicated to anti-aging technology.
Maris, who launched the fund in 2017, joined former director of diagnostics Mike Pellini and longtime life science investor Steve Kafka. Section 32 pays tribute to Section 31, the intelligence agency of the Star Trek universe (Maris is a big fan of Star Trek).
The firm, which raised its third fund at the start of the year, is now starting to recruit.
Maris turned to Google for many of his early 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 severance pay of $ 90 million to former executive Andy Rubin, despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct while he was in the business. (Rubin denied any wrongdoing.)
Section 32 also uses Kenzo Fong Hing, former marketing manager for Android, as an advisor to support his marketing and communications efforts; former Google recruiter Alice Cheung at the head of talent (“anyone connected to tens of thousands of engineers is someone you want on your team,” said Maris); and talent specialist Kimberly Shih, who is from Rubin’s now closed start-up, Essential.
Maris’ experience at Google helped guide some of his own thinking about the culture of Section 32, especially to keep the group small enough to foster real connections within the team. Maris particularly believes in the power of start-ups to get things done.
“When I was at Google setting up Google Ventures, I helped define this service-based business model,” said Maris. “We focus on the areas that have the most impact and are most in demand by our holding companies – and it depends on the people.”
Maris mostly kept quiet about his time at Google, but weighed in after news of the departure of David Drummond, legal director of Alphabet, earlier this year after revealing he had dated an employee few years ago. At the time, Maris commented, “We have very, very different ideas about how to treat people, and it took a long time.”
In a telephone interview, Maris praised Stapleton for her talent and courage in exposing the company’s shortcomings, and said that he liked to read many memos she had written while they were both on the spot.
“Claire is a wonderful person – and she has been successful on Google for many years, but there is no denying that the culture has changed dramatically from the start,” he said. “It takes courage to speak out against some of the things that the company does or does not do that do not correspond to the values that it adopts. I have a lot of respect for that.”
He also said that he was happy to be a sounding board for former Google employees who also noticed changes in culture.
Calico “puts a stake in the ground”
So far, Section 32 has invested in around 40 companies, including Auris, a microsurgical robotics company that sold to Johnson & Johnson; Alector, a therapeutic company specializing in neurodegenerative diseases; and Vir, an infectious disease company that works on new vaccines, including for Covid19.
More broadly, the fund also focuses on machine learning, cybersecurity, oncology, infectious diseases, diagnostics and brain health.
Maris also remains interested in anti-aging technology, and he usually meets three to five founders a week in space. He doesn’t believe Calico, whom he helped start, has done enough to keep new players from entering the space.
Maris does not think that anti-aging “solves death”, as some have said, but rather it is about helping people to live better longer. In his view, this is linked to many diseases that humans live with today that shorten our lifespan.
“My goal has not been reached and I do not see much progress in this direction,” he said. “If your goal is to reduce suffering and help people live better lives, this is an area worth exploring.”
Calico came into force in 2013, when former Google CEO Larry Page published a blog article to announce that the company would tackle aging. The company has remained largely mysterious about its plans, and lost several leaders of big names in 2018. That same year, he relaunched his multi-billion dollar research collaboration with pharmaceutical giant AbbVie.
Maris has mixed feelings about everything. He believes Calico has successfully normalized the field of anti-aging research, in part thanks to all the press attention. Maris said he had started Calico to “put a stake in the ground to say that this stuff is important and worth investing in, as we will all be patient at some point.”
But he also says he is “disappointed” with the lack of information or peer-reviewed articles so far. Although he thinks the statement has been made, at least.
Despite Section 32’s emphasis on biology, Maris said he was not making much change to his investment strategy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
For example, telemedicine is particularly hot right now as patients seek to avoid seeing a doctor in person. But Maris said the company would not turn to telemedicine just because it is growing.
“If something, something like that causes us to withdraw from fashionable areas,” he said. “Fashionable sectors of venture capital investment tend to be overvalued or underperform.”
“The things that matter”
Maris also wants to allocate funds to larger social problems that we do not have the will to resolve politically, in particular by improving access to health services in America.
“I see that we have found about $ 3 trillion in a week,” he said, referring to the relief bill passed in mid-May. “With this money, you could build a $ 5 billion hospital in each state, $ 10 billion to manage it and provide free health care to all,” he said. “You still have a few trillion left.”
“What that tells me is that we have a distribution problem, not a money problem.”
He highlighted the smartphone revolution as a massive cultural and business change in a relatively short time, and wonders why society cannot do the same for health care.
“We have sort of created a world where we are able to distribute these smartphone supercomputers to almost everyone,” said Maris. “It would have seemed miraculous not too long ago, but this system exists and it works. And everyone involved in this ecosystem is making money.”
“So if we have and can do it, we should be able to build a world that distributes health, water and medicines to everyone,” said Maris. “Silicon Valley has done a great job of inventing new things and distributing technology so that companies can benefit from it. They have not done a good job distributing other important things.”
WATCH: 2012 CNBC interview with Bill Maris