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Google hires mental health expert to lead new life sciences unit

By Reuters | Sep 16th 2015 | 2 min read
By Reuters | September 16th 2015

Google has hired a senior health researcher to lead a push into the mental health sector, as its ambitions beyond internet search expand to fit the new blueprint laid out with its reinvention as holding company Alphabet.

Thomas Insel has stepped down as director of the National Institute of Mental Health to take on “a wide spectrum of issues in mental health” at Google Life Sciences, the government research organisation said on Tuesday.

Google said last month that life sciences would be the first new business to be carved out as a standalone operation since it announced its reorganisation.

By turning initiatives such as life sciences, which had previously been an experimental project within the Google X research labs, into freestanding business units, chief executive Larry Page hopes to push Google faster into big new markets unrelated to its core internet business.

The life sciences division had already targeted diabetes as its first significant area for research, but the company is now taking on a field that could have even bigger implications. In a 2013 talk, Dr Insel said that mental health problems account for nearly 30 per cent of all disability, far more than any other health issue. He has also argued that conditions such as depression and schizophrenia should be seen as brain disorders that can be tackled through biomedical research, but that research into these conditions has lagged behind other medical fields.

News of the appointment came a day after Google named a veteran auto industry executive to lead its driverless car project, signalling its hopes of turning one its most prominent research efforts into a full-scale business.

Although John Krafcik, a former Hyundai executive, has been given the title of chief executive of the car initiative, Google said the project was still only a research effort inside its Google X research labs. Despite attracting widespread attention in the auto industry over the past five years, the company has yet to forge any partnerships with car companies to use its technology.

However, it said this week that the car project “was certainly a good candidate” at some point to become a standalone company under the Alphabet umbrella.

Google said Mr Insel “is coming on board to explore how the life sciences team at Google could have an impact on the huge challenges related to understanding, diagnosing, and treating mental illness”.

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