Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) has bestowed quite a wedding gift to company co-founder Sergey Brin and his new wife. The company has taken a $3.9 million minority stake in 23andMe, which is described as an early stage biotech company that just happens to have been co-founded by Brin's new wife, Anne Wojcicki. (I wish I hadn't edited out my planned joke in last week's wedding take, wondering about the possibility for some biotech search product. Ah, the missed opportunities!)
The concept that Google might involve itself in gene-related search isn't a new one. Rumors to that effect have occasionally surfaced. In fact, David Vise's book The Google Story claimed that Google was collaborating with former Celera (NYSE: CRA ) head Craig Venter on just such an initiative.
According to an 8-K filed with the SEC last night by Google, 23andMe is "focused on helping consumers understand and browse their genome." (Just in case you've spent many a sleepless night wondering about your genome and wishing you could browse it.) Before Google took the stake in 23andMe, Brin had given the company $2.6 million in interim debt financing, which was repaid as part of this transaction. Other 23andMe investors include New Enterprise Associates, Mohr Davidow Ventures, and Genentech (NYSE: DNA ) . Genentech's CEO also happens to be on Google's board. The filing stated the company's Audit Committee reviewed and approved the move as a related-party transaction.
Given the back story (Google's long-rumored interest in genomic search), maybe this development isn't that shocking, but it seems to me the execution certainly could have been better, given the fact this is one of the most well-known -- and scrutinized -- companies out there. Google's investment and Brin's stealthy wedding taking place within the same month certainly grabs attention (and an SEC filing makes an odd wedding announcement -- talk about Regulation Full Disclosure). After all, Brin apparently didn't confirm his wedding when a reporter congratulated him on it last week, and while at the time that may have sounded like the separation of personal and business life, this development makes it clear the separation is a bit fuzzy.
Maybe Google shareholders will overlook the suggestion of sketchiness, despite the personal relationships involved and what could be interpreted as less-than-appropriate timing. Google's been a very successful stock so far, and $3.9 million is a mere drop in Google's very large bucket of cash. (I'd also argue it's a mere drop in Brin's large bucket of cash, too. Nobody could criticize use of his money for his wife's start-up, after all.)
However, there are some bigger concepts shareholders might want to consider. Although Google has, since its IPO, warned that it's not going to be a conventional company ("Do not be surprised if we place smaller bets in areas that seem very speculative or even strange," is one direct quote from its original S-1 filing), one might wonder whether those puzzling decisions may sometimes venture into the realm of inappropriate use of shareholder money (after all, "Nobody's going to tell us what to do" is one possible subtext there). As far as Google possibly delving more deeply into genomic search, as controversial as traditional privacy in search is, particularly for Google, genetic privacy seems destined to become an even more explosively controversial topic.
It isn't like this kind of thing never happens in the corporate world, but one might expect more from Google, which has often positioned itself as a more touchy-feely type of company. Furthermore, although it can be good when companies flout certain types of conventional wisdom, this development seems like a different brand of rebellious. I'm not sure shareholders should be too enamored of a management style that gives the impression it's willing to fund the enriching of its own friends and family and doesn't seem too concerned about how stakeholders might perceive such decisions.
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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.