Earlier this year, Alphabet (GOOG 1.56%) (GOOGL 1.61%) echoed the Bard's famous question -- "What's in a name?" -- by unexpectedly renaming one of the best-known companies in the world. Google became Alphabet, and many articles were written about its confounding new corporate structure.
And while few saw Alphabet's surprise rebrand on the horizon, the move also contains an important lesson for investors: Alphabet isn't afraid to reinvent itself. Tech site Re/code recently summarized Alphabet perfectly, characterizing the tech holding company as a "high-tech university subsidized by search ads." In reinventing part of itself once more, Alphabet recently rebranded its high-potential life-sciences unit as Verily, an adverb of Middle English derivation meaning "in truth" or "truly."
A rose by any other name
Like many of Alphabet's former moonshots, this reorganization is equal parts PR and practicality. Many tech companies, including Alphabet's largest rival, Apple, view healthcare as offering one of the most promising opportunities for technological disruption and improvement in the decades to come. America spends one-sixth of its GDP on healthcare, and that number is virtually guaranteed to increase as the baby boomers age. Accordingly, Verily's website touts a number of interesting applications for the technology it's developing. See for yourself:
What's more, Verily appears to have attracted an all-star lineup of medical researchers, not surprising given Alphabet's willingness to grant massive research budgets and explore far-flung areas of medicine. As it continues to rebrand its non-search business units, it's becoming increasingly apparent that Alphabet wants to develop breakthrough products across the numerous industries that it and many others believe technology will play an increasingly important role in the next generation.
However, for Alphabet investors, the question remains whether Alphabet can convert high-potential projects like Verily into real, self-sustaining businesses.
But can it be a business?
Given the brain trust it appears to have assembled and its own deep pockets, Alphabet stands a reasonable chance to create watershed treatments for some of today's most complex problems. However, from a shareholder's perspective, this is only one side of the equation.
For now, investors don't have much visibility into the financial condition of Verily and other moonshot projects. But they won't have to wait long. In January, Alphabet will report its first earnings under its new corporate structure, which will contain Google and "other bets," including Verily. Estimates on Alphabet's current "other bets" burn rate varies wildly from $500 million to as much as $4 billion annually.
But while some moonshots such as Verily probably burn money today, other side projects are producing profits. Through investing in some home-run start-ups such as Uber over the years, Google Ventures probably sits on billions of dollars in paper gains today. This doesn't help from a short-term cash-flow perspective, but that isn't necessarily a problem for Alphabet, which can probably use some of its new businesses to finance others. That situation, of course, could change if either the VC market hits a rough patch or costs for moonshots such as Verily or self-driving cars dramatically increase.
Ultimately, though, retail investors' opinion of Alphabet's various projects is irrelevant. Because of Alphabet's three-tiered stock structure, voting power remains under control of the company's three original core executives -- Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt. So while Verily and other moonshot efforts could someday have a meaningful economic impact, you're stuck with them either way when you invest in Alphabet. Here's to hoping the moonshots pan out for investors.
Tech site Re/code summarized Alphabet perfectly, characterizing the tech holding company as a "high-tech university subsidized by search ads."