It was during a late March 2009 meeting of Britain's Conservative Party and its "Economic Recovery Committee" that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) chief executive Eric Schmidt birthed the idea that would lead to humans winning the war on cancer.
"I wasn't new to politics but I was the fresh face in the room. My mind was wandering," Schmidt admitted during a sit-down with reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, on his way to the inaugural "Saved the World" prize presentation in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Schmidt had been invited to join the council by Prime Minister David Cameron, then the opposition Conservative Party leader. Months before, he had declined an offer from U.S. President Barack Obama to be his country's chief technology officer.
"We were talking of searching for solutions to the problems plaguing the banking industry. [Treasury Secretary] Tim Geithner hadn't come up with a specific plan, and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) and Barclays (NYSE: BCS ) were suffering -- Cameron wanted to fill the void," Schmidt said. "That's when it hit me: Everything can be boiled down to a search problem. In this case, all we needed to do was index cancer indicators and create the means to search the body for them, digitally, at any doctor's office."
The billion-dollar cancer drug that wasn't
Schmidt says he scribbled furiously in his notebook for the next hour, working up a product plan that Google would later call G-Scan. "Like a Cat scan, except powered by algorithm."
Says Cameron, "He was like a two-year-old with a new toy. We marveled at his focus. Most of us thought we'd be leaving the meeting with a plan to present to [then-Prime Minister] Gordon Brown."
Instead, Schmidt dialed Google's U.S headquarters, reaching co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Schmidt told them he needed an algorithm that would search for common biological markers for cancer cells and that they should re-hire some of their recently let-go senior engineers. Page and Brin agreed.
"We saw the potential immediately. We'd be borrowing from the biotechs. 'Seek and destroy' drugs from Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: VRTX ) and others had the right idea -- what they lacked was an intelligent way to search. They lacked the index," Page said.
They also lacked the funding. Sure, Google had $16 billion in the bank, but it was cutting jobs. How could Schmidt approve a massive new spending plan following layoffs and a $460 million options repricing plan? So, Brin made a call to U2 frontman Bono and his investing bandmates at Elevation Partners. "These were the guys who rescued Palm (Nasdaq: PALM ) . They had the cash and street cred to wage the war against cancer."
Google, meanwhile, needed a business model. "Human billboards were nothing new -- just look at NASCAR drivers. Bowl games, stadiums, all of it had been made available for marketers," Schmidt said. "But cells were different. You can't see atomized ads without a microscope."
So, Schmidt decided on a different strategy: aggregate and sell data. Drugmakers would buy real-time research from its G-scans to create better drugs. Device makers would pay for insight into how to create better surgical tools. Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN ) and Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG ) acted first, but dozens have since followed. And today, in 2014? Google is the world's first trillion-dollar company.
Is Big Brother ogling you?
To Schmidt, that's reward enough. But not for Bono. "We don't have enough [BLEEP] innovators in the [BLEEP] world today. Let's [BLEEP] [BLEEP] honor the ones we have," the aging rocker said after landing in Kabul last night.
Obama agreed, but in a more gracious tone. "We thought we needed him here. I mean, he campaigned for me. But he and Larry and Sergey have saved the world from cancer, and that idea was born in London. So, I guess we should all be grateful. He made the right choice," said the president.
Even so, actor Sean Penn -- fresh off playing yet another angry activist -- led a throng of protesters outside Schimdt's downtown Kabul hotel, situated a short distance from a former opium lab that's since been retrofitted as a manufacturing plant for the G-Scan. "Better dead than read!" they chanted, referring to privacy concerns over Google's microscopic ogler.
"This is a [BLEEP] invasion of privacy! Besides, why couldn't we manufacture these [BLEEP] hunks of [BLEEP] in a hollowed-out General Motors plant in Detroit?"
Says Schmidt, "Hard to believe anyone is protesting this as an invasion of privacy. I mean, you talk about your digestive habits on Facebook and Twitter, and now you're complaining about us searching your body for cancer? You're kidding, right?"
(In case it wasn't perfectly obvious, dear reader, this is Foolish satire.)