Here's why Abernethy wanted to jump on board at Verily and her ambitions to grow its research business

Verily has extended its reach into diverse areas of healthcare and life sciences, from COVID-19 screening and testing during the pandemic to care solutions for sleep apnea and diabetes to developing devices like miniaturized continuous glucose monitors. 

But clinical research has been a core focus of Alphabet's life sciences venture, and the recent hiring of Amy Abernethy, M.D., Ph.D., signals Verily has strong ambitions to transform research to make it easier and faster to run clinical trials.

Abernethy's résumé boasts decades of research-related experience in a variety of regulatory, commercial and clinical roles. Most recently at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), she served as principal deputy commissioner and acting chief information officer, where she is credited with modernizing the agency's technology and data practices.

As president of Verily’s clinical research business, Abernethy will oversee the company’s existing clinical research efforts—including its Project Baseline initiative to build health data management and analysis tools—as well as lead the development of a platform for clinical trials and real-world evidence studies.

RELATED: Ex-FDA deputy Abernethy lands at Verily, ready to steer clinical research

“To truly compete in the clinical research space, Verily’s identity needs to be anchored on the ethical collection and use of patient data and real-world evidence. Given Dr. Abernethy’s practical experience at Flatiron and her policy experience at the FDA, this is a major signal that Verily is serious about national leadership in this space," said Tom Cassels, president of Rock Health, a venture firm focused on digital health.

Abernethy's work will be supported by the company’s massive $700 million funding round late last year. At the time, Verily noted the capital’s primary use would be in expanding Project Baseline and its research programs in digital surgery, pathology and immunology as well as building the aforementioned real-world evidence platform to streamline clinical research.

Amy Abernethy, M.D.
Amy Abernethy, M.D., Ph.D. (FDA)

The move to bring Abernethy onboard ramps up Verily's ongoing investment in its clinical research business, which represents an opportunity for sustained revenue for the company, according to Jeff Becker, principal analyst, healthcare at market intelligence company CB Insights.

"It makes sense to bring in someone to lead the life sciences data platform and a real-world evidence platform play. Scaling Baseline, expanding partnerships and establishing a compelling real-world evidence service and solutions offering would generate a sustained line of business for Verily," he said.

For Abernethy, jumping from the public sector back into the private market—and to a company with big ambitions in the life sciences space—offers an opportunity to focus on innovation at a rapid pace. 

RELATED: Here's how Verily plans to invest $700M in fresh capital

Fierce Healthcare recently caught up with Abernethy to chat about her move to Verily, why she thinks the company is entering a new phase of growth and her vision to grow Verily's clinical research business. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fierce Healthcare: Why were you interested in joining Verily?

Amy Abernethy: When I was at FDA, one thing was very clear: The ability to discover new drugs, devices and diagnostic tests—that part of the discovery engine is moving along pretty well and fast. I had worked a lot at FDA to help scale the regulatory apparatus so that the FDA reviewed more products as they came in. But the part that was pretty fixed and not much better than the way we did it in 1995 was the clinical evidence generation part, in particular clinical trials, how we think about clinical trials and our ability to combine together the traditional clinical trials model with the real-world evidence and real-world data model. It became clear, given what I understood about software, research and data and regulatory requirements, that it made sense for me to be a part of the equation to solve for this.

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When I left the FDA, I started to figure out in earnest where was the right place to land and even the right model. I didn’t know if it was on the academic side, or going to a nonprofit, or joining a different health tech company or starting up a company of my own. I went through the entire gamut of asking, what’s the way to solve this equation? And ultimately, landed on Verily being a company that I thought had core substrate to solve this hard problem. At Verily, enough of it had already been built that we could now take those core pieces and pull them together in a way that would be able to catapult us into the next phase of evidence generation, and it's a company that I thought matched my particular skill sets.

FH: What is unique about Verily and its capabilities to advance clinical research?

AA: When I think about how do you accelerate evidence generation, I think about it in four categories. The first is improving the ability to bring study participants into the right research, so that’s recruitment, enrollment and making sure that we’re thinking about meeting people where they are.

Second, how do we improve study design? Sometimes, that is more complex study designs, like platform trials and novel study designs, and sometimes that’s getting smarter about appropriate eligibility criteria or being smarter about how we think about how the data sets populate studies to blend data sets from multiple sources in credible and reliable ways. Third, getting smarter about how we generate the data sets for clinical trials and how we make sense of them, so it’s data writ large.

The fourth one is to improve the productivity and efficiency of clinical trials. What are the things we can do to make the process of being a study participant more humane? Or, how do we take out the extra steps that study coordinators go through? 

And so, how do we think about Verily’s portfolio as a health tech company solving for those things? Verily has exceptional capabilities to build spectacular software and also compute power and core knowledge around smart data analysis and cybersecurity and all the things we want to get right from a technical, security and data perspective.

Verily also has hired the best scientists and researchers, and they have a unique group of individuals ready to advance the science. As a health tech company, they can forge partnerships with pharma companies, device companies or others that create new ways of either thinking about the products to develop or the ways to do the clinical evidence generation and evaluation.

FH: Do you think the expectations for Verily are high as far as its ambitions in healthcare and life sciences?

AA: I think the expectations are high. But I have a different observation, having come from a startup as I was at Flatiron before FDA. Verily, like Flatiron, started out of Google X as a startup, a separate business, and it needed to do all the fledgling things that a startup does. What you’re seeing right now is Verily starting to turn the corner and, with my hire and some other key hires, these are important signals of this turning the corner into the next stage of Verily's maturation.

What you’re seeing now is Verily going from startup stage to having more senior business leaders, and now we understand the things we can do, and we're saying this is what we're going to focus on and essentially double down on clinical research. I’m pretty curious to watch how this evolves.

When I looked underneath the hood [at Verily], I said, 'Holy cow, they know how to do these things, they have all the right substrate, resources, and people.' They are already focused on turning the corner with respect to business leadership and hiring all the new people, and if you put these pieces together, you can totally see where this goes.

FH: What do you envision that Verily will accomplish in the clinical research space in the next five years?

AA: To be honest, I’m a two-year time horizon kind of person. Looking at clinical research platforms and horizons, we’re going to be making sure that we have an evidence generation platform that has been tested in the market and that people understand what kind of studies we can do and have the confidence to bring development trials and other studies to Verily because this is the place to go, and we have proof points of why we are patient-centric, efficient and generate data sets that are credible to the FDA. That's one part of what I expect in the next two to five years.

We're also going to show that we can do three different kinds of intervention—we can study medical products, whether drugs, devices or biologics or other things that belong to other people that we’re given the responsibility to study, so essentially sponsor-driven research. We can also study our own products, so for example, devices that Verily builds and generate the evidence that supports the devices in a credible way and in a way that's trustworthy to regulators. And we're also going to show that we're an evidence generation engine supporting the evaluation of healthcare delivery models that are really important to other parts of Verily's business. For example, we study, as an evidence generation engine, what’s the best way to take care of a patient with diabetes from a healthcare delivery perspective?

Those are the three things that in five years, I want to know that our evidence generation platform and infrastructure are ready to do. 

FH: What most excites you about your new role at Verily?

AA: Getting it done.

I’m an oncologist by background, and my clinical practice is to take care of patients with melanoma, metastatic melanoma, so often young people with devastating scenarios of melanoma. I’ve always been very focused on how do I take better care of the person sitting in front of me. It’s got to continuously get better every day for that person, whether it’s new drugs, better diagnostic tests or a better understanding of what’s the right healthcare delivery model that makes it easier for a person to live every day with melanoma. What excites me is finding ways to solve that equation, and unless we get the evidence generation part right, it is always going to be a chokepoint in the system and make things slower.