Bill Maris has a simple proposition for those who are a little freaked out by his efforts to digitize human DNA: “If we each keep our genetic information secret, then we’re all going to die.” OK then.
The Google Ventures managing partner has shifted the firm’s focus this year to investing in companies that aim to slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life. Many of those life-sciences companies do this by collecting customers’ genetic information and looking for trends.
Hoarding this kind of personal data introduces risks, particularly as hacking becomes an everyday occurrence. But Maris dismissed privacy concerns surrounding the prospect of genomic data becoming public. “What are you worried about?” he said at a Wall Street Journal technology conference in Laguna Beach, Calif., on Tuesday. “Your genome isn’t really secret.”
That’s because people constantly leave traces of their genomic material lying around in public. If someone really wanted the information, they don’t need to hack a server. They could just pull a cup with your saliva out of the trash and test it, said Maris, who studied neuroscience and helped form Calico, a company within Google parent company Alphabet that focuses on age-related diseases. Google Ventures is an investor in 23andMe, which sells a $99 DNA spit kit to provide customers with ancestry information.
DNA technology has come a long way. Maris said the technical problems around editing the genome are practically solved. As for his line about how we’re all going to die: He didn’t mean immediately. Maris is a fierce advocate for life extension, racing his own mortality to invest in companies that might keep him and the rest of humanity alive longer—or, perhaps, indefinitely.
In the interview, Maris spoke alongside Peter Diamandis, the chief executive officer of the XPrize foundation, which organizes complex technology competitions. They’re both preoccupied with doubling human life expectancy. Analyzing a large database of genomic data is important to achieving that goal.
If people started living drastically longer, we might find ourselves with some new problems, such as how to feed everyone. Diamandis said that as people get happier and healthier, they have fewer kids. If people would eat less meat, Maris said there would be more room to grow food for them all. Maris, who doesn’t eat meat and can’t stand the taste, touted one of his investments, Impossible Foods, as a company that’s creating meat substitutes capable of satisfying beef lovers. “It was so much like meat that it disgusted me,” Maris said. “I couldn’t finish it.”
—With Caroline Chen