Last week, Google bought San Francisco startup Lift Labs for an undisclosed price. Lift creates devices to counteract the shaking caused by Parkinson’s disease and “essential tremor,” an even more common medical condition that triggers shaking. The company’s first product, introduced late last year for $300, is a tremor-cancellation handle with spoon and fork attachments for people whose shaking makes it difficult to eat without a struggle. The gadget really seems to make a difference—the company’s website displays touching e-mails from users, like one from a man who says he was able to eat a bowl of cereal for the first time in years.
Lift Labs will live in Google’s Google X division, the not-so-secret secret branch of the company responsible for its self-driving car and Google Glass.
Cofounder Anupam Pathak got the idea for this gizmo when he was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, working on a military project focusing on how to stabilize rifles when the soldiers aiming them are shaky from stress. The approach uses a technology similar to active-noise cancellation in audio headphones. As he told Mechanical Engineering Magazine last year, “The basic issue I discovered is you can’t stop soldiers from trembling but you can accommodate it. With our device, we allow the hand to move but what you’re holding onto cancels its motion. Digital cameras already do this on a small scale so we’ve come up with technology to do it on a larger scale.”
In 2011, Pathak got funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop a prototype—something the company reminded the world of in a tweet last week: “We hope to continue to be a living example of what Govt seed funding can do for public. So grateful.
NIHsbir”. In 2013, the venture firm Rock Health was part of a group of angel investors that together put $1 million into the company.
Ho hum, just another Google acquisition, right? After all, Google picks up about a company a week.
Or is it? In the continuing effort to decipher Google’s tea leaves, Silicon Valley has been trying to figure out just what this latest acquisition means.
One possibility: Google, or at least a part of it, is turning into a medical device company. Google X, which is also working on contact lenses that monitor the glucose levels of tears and is collecting data to try to build a complete picture of a “baseline” healthy human, has invested in a number of medical ventures including genomics company 23 and Me, and started Calico, a biotech company that’s looking at how to dramatically extend lifespans.
Or it’s not a broad strategy, but a narrow one: Google is taking a very specific and personal interest in Parkinson’s. The company has a reason to do so: Google cofounder Sergey Brin, who oversees Google X, has a genetic mutation that makes him more susceptible to developing Parkinson’s, and his mother has been diagnosed with the disease. Independently, Brin has been donating money to Parkinson’s research.
Or, you might even think—particularly if you’ve read Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle lately—that Google’s trying to figure out a way to know just when, where, and what you’re eating, and that pretty soon these gadgets will be sending data to the Internet as well as helping people eat. In which case you might be overthinking this just a bit.
But I’m going to go with perhaps the simplest—and, to me, most encouraging—explanation. The Lift Labs acquisition simply means that Google is aware that groundbreaking technology is not just about the big stuff: organizing all the world’s information, changing the way cars work, or eradicating a disease. The Lift Labs acquisition is a sign that sometimes the stuff that seems small but is fixable in the short term—like being able to eat independently with ease—can make a huge difference while we’re waiting for the big stuff to get figured out.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.