News & Analysis

Google loses top computer scientist to MedTech startup Human Longevity

- August 1, 2014 3 MIN READ

Franz Och, one of Google’s top computer scientists and Head of Google Translate is moving on from the company in pursuit of something more ambitious – conquering death. Och is joining the team at San Diego-based genetics startup Human Longevity as Chief Data Scientist.

After 10 years as a research scientist and manager leading Google’s Machine Translation Group, Och is making a MedTech startup his new home. Founded in 2013 by J. Craig Venter, the biologist famous for being one of the first to sequence the entire human genome, Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI) is a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company focused on extending the health, high performance human life span.

HLI is currently building the world’s most comprehensive human genotype and phenotype database as a basis for a variety of commercialisation opportunities to help solve ageing-related disease and human biological decline.

Venter’s team plans on sequencing tens of thousands of genomes every year, as well as the genomes of trillions of microbes that live on and inside the body – like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. But one of the biggest challenges in medicine and science today, according to Venter, is how to interpret the biological data generated from sequencing individual genomes.

The MedTech startup believes that biological data could hold the key to delaying the onset of ageing-related diseases and death. What’s lacking is the technology to decipher that data and turn them into actionable insights. As such, the startup is welcoming Och’s expertise in machine learning and language translation to help build new computational methods that makes biological data interpretable and clinically actionable.

“Franz brings not only unquestionable talent in this area, but also a fresh perspective and a creative mind to tackle what has never before been attempted. We are pleased to have Franz join us in our quest to revolutionise healthcare,” Venter said in a media release.

But how will an expert in computerised language translation be able to handle genetics? Apparently, interpreting the DNA letters that make up our genetic code isn’t all that different to translating a foreign language. Each sequenced genome is made of some 3 billion As, Cs, Gs, and Ts strung together.

According to Genome News Network, a genome is like “a book written without capitalisation, or punctuation, without breaks between words, sentences, or paragraphs, and with strings of nonsense letters scattered between and even with sentence … Even in a familiar language it is difficult to pick out the meaning of the passage.”


Source: www.genomenewsnetwork.org

Well, there can’t be very many human minds that have the acumen or patience to crack the code, so technology is definitely the answer.

“We need to use machine learning to find associations between genes that mere mortals can’t find from staring at the data. It’s too complex,” Venter told U-T San Diego

This is why Venter headhunted Och, the man responsible for revolutionising online language translation. “I basically did a search and tracked down the person who led the Google Translate effort, which I see as similar to the challenges we face with genomics”, Venter told U-T San Diego.

Och is currently recruiting and building a team of research scientists and software engineers who will be located in Mountain View, California.

“We’re going to need the best and brightest from the areas of computer science, machine learning and big data generation and interpretation as well as those from biology, genomics and bioinformatics to reach a new level of understanding of this massive database,” Och said in a media release.

“I look forward to working with Craig and the team at HLI to enhance our understanding of human biology, to better manage the healthy ageing process and thus increase the healthy human lifespan.”