What's up at stealthy Cal­i­co Labs? AI star Daphne Koller makes an abrupt ex­it as top team shrinks

Daphne Koller

When the not­ed AI ex­pert and ex-Stan­ford star Daphne Koller was re­cruit­ed to Google’s Cal­i­co Labs in 2016, it fit in­to an up­beat nar­ra­tive about how Arthur Levin­son was build­ing an amaz­ing team of top pro­fes­sion­als to pi­o­neer an­ti-ag­ing re­search. A few days ago, though, Koller abrupt­ly left the com­pa­ny and that nar­ra­tive is get­ting some fresh scruti­ny in R&D cir­cles.

“I have de­cid­ed to leave Cal­i­co to pur­sue oth­er pro­fes­sion­al op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Koller said in an emailed state­ment to Bloomberg, which first re­port­ed the de­par­ture. “I very much en­joyed my time at Cal­i­co, and have the great­est re­spect for the Cal­i­co team and their im­por­tant and as­pi­ra­tional mis­sion.”

This is the sec­ond big de­fec­tion for Cal­i­co in re­cent months. Top sci­en­tist Hal Bar­ron jumped to helm the R&D group at Glax­o­SmithK­line. But Bar­ron was wooed away with a top job and a turn­around mis­sion, with a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar an­nu­al pay pack­age and his own of­fice in the Bay Area, where GSK has lit­tle pres­ence.

Arthur Levin­son

Koller had on­ly re­cent­ly at­tract­ed at­ten­tion for her dis­cus­sion of new mouse da­ta they were ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in the lab, part of a pricey ef­fort to de­vel­op new ther­a­pies that could make longer lives health­i­er. That was a de­par­ture for Cal­i­co, which has kept its head down low since Levin­son was brought in by Google’s Lar­ry Page to build the com­pa­ny.

More re­cent­ly, there were some ru­mors cir­cu­lat­ing in the AI world that Koller had grown some­what dis­en­chant­ed with Cal­i­co.

That cer­tain­ly wasn’t part of her pub­lic pro­file, though. Here’s a com­ment from Koller’s LinkedIn page.

Cal­i­co al­lowed me to re­turn to my pas­sion of ap­ply­ing ma­chine learn­ing to im­prove hu­man health. As Cal­i­co’s first Chief Com­put­ing Of­fi­cer, I built an amaz­ing team work­ing on new com­pu­ta­tion­al meth­ods for an­a­lyz­ing bi­o­log­i­cal da­ta sets to help bet­ter un­der­stand the process of ag­ing and de­vel­op­ing in­ter­ven­tions that en­able peo­ple to live longer, health­i­er lives.

The use of new ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech in drug dis­cov­ery is fast be­com­ing one of the biggest trends in drug R&D as the ma­jors start to de­vel­op am­bi­tious in­ter­nal ef­forts to find a faster and more ef­fi­cient way to iden­ti­fy po­ten­tial break­throughs. But it still has a long way to go be­fore it can prove it­self to the in­dus­try.

Hal Barron, GSK

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I think that culture, to some extent, is as hard, in fact even harder, than doing the science.

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