Google Health lost 2 top executives and another is moving internally as employees say the group is struggling to focus
- Two top execs at Google Health have recently left, and another is planning to leave in January.
- They include the director of global deployment, the UK lead, and the engineering chief.
- Anurag Agarwal, who has spearheaded work on clinical tools, will lead the group's engineering efforts moving forward, Google Health told Business Insider.
- One former exec said that Google Health is struggling to define itself, and that the controversy involving Google AI chief Jeff Dean and his a role in the firing of Google ethicist Timnit Gebru earlier this month, is making matters more complicated.
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Two high-ranking executives at Google Health have left in the past three months, and another is planning to leave, Business Insider has learned.
Michael Macdonnell, Google Health's director of global deployment, left in September for the UK-based upstart Sensyne Health; UK lead Dr. Dominic King left in October for Optum; and Shashidhar Thakur ("Shashi"), a search expert and vice president of engineering, is due to leave Google Health in January, switching to Google's commerce wing.
Google Health confirmed the departures to Business Insider and said that Anurag Agarwal, an engineering VP who has spearheaded work on clinical tools, will lead the group's engineering efforts moving forward. Macdonnell and King declined to comment. Thakur did not respond to Business Insider's requests for comment.
Google formed the Health product group in 2018 in an effort to reorganize its various health bets under one roof. Dr. David Feinberg, the former CEO of Geisinger Health, was brought in to lead the venture, and in 2019 said it aimed to organize the world's health information.
Business Insider reported in September that Feinberg's vision has not yet come to fruition. Google Health has a few partnerships with big names like the Mayo Clinic, but hasn't yet developed any products or services that it can sell widely in the healthcare industry.
One former Google Health employee, who asked not to be named, said they left because Google Health is still rudderless.
"It hasn't at all decided what it wants to be when it grows up," the person said. "And that was sort of alright when it was a startup of its own, albeit within a big company. But now it's now getting on two and a half years and it hasn't really moved on."
A Google spokesperson told Business Insider that the Health group has made progress, and is proud of its work for doctors and consumers, particularly in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. The team always expected it would take time to consolidate different teams from across the company, the spokesperson added.
Read more: Google's secretive healthcare business wants to organize the world's health information, but insiders describe how turf wars and trust issues are hamstringing the operation
A 'crisis of leadership' at Google Health
Google made a big splash when it poached Feinberg from Geisinger to lead its new health team, but where most leaders of major product groups report to CEO Sundar Pichai, Feinberg reports into Jeffrey Dean, the head of Google's AI division.
Dean, one of Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai's few direct reports, drove the original concept for Google Health, but beyond that it's not always clear to employees why he's in charge of the wide-ranging group, two former employees told Business Insider.
AI and machine learning are big parts of Google Health's focus, but so are search functions, clinical tools, mobility reports, and public health partnerships.
Research organizations DeepMind and Medical Brain, meanwhile, draw on AI, but when it comes to healthcare, the challenge often isn't developing great AI. It's partnering with doctors to make sure that the algorithms can work in clinical settings, Dr. Lily Peng, Google Health product manager, told Business Insider in September.
Shifting from a research area into a product group intended to make profit for the company is proving challenging, according to two former employees.
Google Health is a complex institution that in 2018 inherited three different teams — Google Brain, Nest, and DeepMind — that were all pretty independent and making progress in different areas.
"It was this process where Google said, 'Children, come together, figure out your business strategy between all of your healthcare teams and make it cohesive,'" a former employee who was involved in the reorganization told Business Insider earlier this year.
The former employee said that Google Health was a group of "continuous research" that still lacked a strong product portfolio. This has led to the group missing out on potential big-name deals, including one with CVS last year, which eventually fizzled out. "We did not have a vision or product roadmap," the former employee, who was involved in those discussions, said.
Over the past two and a half years, Feinberg has had to recruit an executive team and steer the ship coherently, with much of that occurring during the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, one former employee said that Google Health has a "crisis of leadership" on its hands.
"David's just not been able to grip the thing," the former employee said. "We needed somebody who's going to knock heads together and build business."
Jeff Dean's at the helm of Google Health amid an AI controversy
In December, Jeff Dean found himself in the middle of a firestorm that has rocked the company.
Timnit Gebru, a co-lead on Google's ethical-artificial-intelligence research team, was ousted from the company over a research paper about biases being built into artificial intelligence, she said earlier this month.
The debacle has prompted concerns over how Google handles racism internally with employees, and externally in the algorithms it produces for research. It's also complicated the already tenuous situation at Google Health, one former employee said.
Read more: Inside Google's firing of a top AI researcher, and the academic paper that started the battle: 'People are seriously pissed'
Management had asked Gebru to either retract the paper or remove her name from it, which Gebru protested, asking for a more detailed explanation for the paper's rejection else she would discuss a timeline for leaving the company. She wrote about her frustrations and called for more leadership accountability to the internal Google Brain Women and Allies group, and her resignation was accepted the next day.
The Google AI bosses said they couldn't meet her conditions for the research paper and that the emails were "inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager."
In an email obtained by Business Insider, Dean told employees that Gebru's exit was a "difficult moment." Last week, employees within the Research group sent a list of demands to Dean and other managers, a sign that tensions between employees and leadership are not cooling down.
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