• Bill Maris Addresses Sensational Headlines at Disrupt

    Bill Maris at DisruptBill Maris of Google Ventures gave a thoughtful performance yesterday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York. Interviewed by the outlet’s co-editor, Alexia Tsotsis, the two covered a range of high-profile stories that have been published in the last year and relate either to Google Ventures’s portfolio companies or to controversial – even seemingly strange — statements that Maris has made to reporters.

    Earlier this year, for example, in a Bloomberg profile, Maris was quoted as saying: “If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.”

    The Bloomberg piece actually provides readers with a fairly rich picture of what Maris is trying to achieve at Google Ventures. But Maris’s very specific prediction has stuck to him like chewed gum and Tsotsis gave him the chance to address it yesterday — an opportunity he seized, suggesting the “science fiction headline” belies the truth.

    The reality, he said is that “for generations, physicians and researchers have worked really hard to diagnose, treat and prevent disease. And so I’m interested in the people that are doing that. And if that adds five years to people’s lifespans, if it adds 10 years . . . I think it’s a worthy pursuit.”

    At the beginning of the last century, he noted, the lifespan in the U.S. “was about 40 years; now it’s about 77.”  There’s “a ton of work that has to be done” to address the question of whether humans can live 500 years, Maris continued. But he said he thinks things are moving in the right direction. “I think it’s possible within a generation or two, at the most, to cure cancer.” Maris also noted that the “first human genome was sequenced in 2004. It took about 15 years and $2.7 billion, and now you can sequence a genome on a machine that can sit [on a small side table] for under $1,000 in a couple of hours.”

    Maris was also asked about the reputation of Uber — heralded as Google Ventures’s largest deal ever when Google backed it in 2013 —  as “ethically challenged.” Calling Uber the “fastest-growing company we’ve ever seen,” he offered that any outfit growing so fast is invariably going to “bump into challenges.” Maris also shared some color about one of his first meetings with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about a potential tie-up.

    “When we invested in the first round of Uber, my partner, David Krane, and I went to see Travis and talk about the round,” said Maris. “I told Travis the same thing I told Matt Rogers and Tony Fadell when we invested in Nest [Labs] . . . which was: ‘What does it take to take it off the table? We don’t want to get into an auction. We’re not looking to save money on valuation, and hopefully you’re not looking to crank it as much as possible.’ And Travis said, ‘Here’s what it’s going to take. Here’s the price and what I want the round to look like. Are you on board with that?’”

    After Maris said Google Ventures was, and they “shook on it,” that’s “exactly the deal that we did, and Travis was as good as his word,” said Maris, offering that Kalanick could “easily” have asked for “15 to 20 percent more.”

    Tsotsis next moved on to Google Glass — which Maris says is alive and well, despite reports suggesting otherwise. We’d hoped she might ask Maris about another, Uber-related headline this year: the news that Google plans to develop its own Uber competitor.

    As you may recall, Bloomberg had reported back in February that Google was “preparing to offer its own ride-hailing service, most likely in conjunction with its long-in-development driverless car project.” At the time, Bloomberg said that David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate development (as well as an Uber board member), had “informed Uber’s board of this possibility, according to a person close to the Uber board.” Bloomberg further reported that “Uber executives have seen screenshots of what appears to be a Google ride-sharing app that is currently being used by Google employees.”

    Shortly after the piece was published, a “person familiar with the matter” told the Wall Street Journal that the “news that Google is developing an app to rival Uber has been blown out of proportion.” Reported the Journal: “The person said a Google engineer has been testing an internal app that helps Google employees carpool to work, and the app isn’t associated with the company’s driverless cars program.”

    That seemed to settle the matter. Given the size of the opportunity Uber is chasing — and Google’s slowing growth — we’re not certain why.

    (By the way, in case you’re curious: Unlike Maris’s colleague Ray Kurzweil – who reportedly takes 150 supplements each day to extend his life — Maris doesn’t take any, he said yesterday.)

  • A Billionaire Brawl in Silicon Valley

    boxing-kidsIt’s no secret that Uber and Lyft don’t like each other much. In just one kerfuffle of late, Lyft told CNN that over a recent 10-month period, Uber employees had requested, then canceled, more than 5,000 rides from Lyft drivers. Uber quickly punched back, claiming that Lyft’s employees had canceled more than twice as many trips on Uber.

    Investors in the rival ride-sharing services have mostly stayed above the fray through such public scuffles. But now, they’re starting to sling mud, too.

    The trouble started yesterday morning, when at a TechCrunch conference in San Francisco, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington interviewed Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in what appeared to be an effort to publicly rehabilitate Kalanick, who the press has begun to portray as something of a bully.

    Arrington asked, for example, if it wasn’t true that Lyft is a copycat, partly because Uber and Lyft announced carpool options within a day of each other in early August. Kalanick, who typically seizes opportunities to trash competitors, humbly offered: “Here’s maybe a little bit of a hat tip: I don’t think Lyft copied this particular feature; companies are often working on similar things.” (According to New York magazine, Lyft began work on its program in April, but “before the Lyft news had landed,” Uber published a blog post announcing a “virtually identical service.”)

    Arrington also uniformly dismissed Uber’s competitors as “ankle biters” and called Lyft “annoying because you have to sit in the front and talk, and they have those mustaches.” Said Arrington to Kalanick: “They seem to be constantly whining that [Uber is] beating them. Would you consider buying Lyft to shut them up?” (The audience laughed as Kalanick told him that Uber isn’t acquiring companies right now.)

    Initially, the interview seemed a coup for Uber. Noting Kalanick’s gentler demeanor — Kalanick repeatedly called himself “scrappy” and misunderstood — TechCrunch reported that if “Uber can buck its perception as a ruthless, greedy company trying to put cabbies out of work and instead show the softer side of on-demand services, it could succeed far beyond taxis.” Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle noted Kalanick’s “pains to exhibit his kinder, gentler side” during the on-stage interview.

    But the cozy interview almost immediately drew criticism on Twitter, with comments from people like Wall Street Journal reporter Doug MacMillan and Founders Fund partner Geoff Lewis, both of whom noted that Arrington is an investor in Uber through his investment firm CrunchFund, an affiliation that was never raised during his interview with Kalanick. Lewis, whose firm has invested in Lyft, was particularly pointed in his tweets, calling Arrington’s interview “shameful,” given its absence of any relevant disclosures.

    Things only grew more heated several hours later, when during an on-stage interview with TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis, Peter Thiel of Founders Fund described Uber as “without question, the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”

    (As Twitter lit up over Thiel’s remark, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose firm also owns a stake in Lyft, joyfully jumped into the fray, tweeting: “A big thank you to @arrington for all the unsolicited free publicity for Lyft this morning at Disrupt!” He also published a discount code for Lyft — DISRUPT — and in Andreessen fashion, punctuated his tweet with a disarming smiley face.)

    Arrington seemingly tried to stifle the conversation by tweeting to Lewis, “Let’s just cut to the ‘and the horse your rode in on’ and go our separate ways, you worthless d__k.” Perhaps realizing the tweet would only garner more attention, Arrington then tweeted that Thiel is an investor in Uber through Arrington’s fund, CrunchFund, and that Arrington is himself an investor in Lyft through Andreessen Horowitz, where he is a limited partner.

    By then, though, Valleywag had caught the flavor of the story, calling out Arrington and Thiel for fighting over Uber “like boys with toys.” And Arrington’s efforts to help alter Kalanick’s public reputation as a brawler were largely forgotten.

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