MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Call it hubris. Call it modern science. Google (GOOG) is launching a new company to focus on aging and related health issues, in a self-described "moonshot" effort that will apply some of the tech giant's vast resources and data-crunching savvy to one of the most fundamental challenges of human life.
What will come of the venture is difficult to say: Google released few details about the new company except its name, Calico, and that it will be led by veteran biotech executive Art Levinson, a highly regarded former CEO at Genentech who's also chairman of Apple's (AAPL) board of directors.
But the prospect is intriguing, both because of Google's reputation for pursuing offbeat ideas and its impact on other sectors of the tech industry, from online search and Internet advertising to Web-based email and mobile computing.
"This is clearly a long-term bet," Google CEO Larry Page said Wednesday. He added in a statement: "With some longe-term, moonshot thinking around health care and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives."
The 40-year-old Page, who has struggled with health problems affecting his vocal chords, is one of several tech leaders who have thrown their weight behind efforts to prolong human life and ease the travails of aging. Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison put a chunk of his fortune into a namesake foundation that supports research in age-related medicine, while PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel is known for backing biotech startups working to extend human life.
Google cofounder Sergey Brin and Levinson are among prominent backers of the multimillion-dollar Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences program, and Google is an investor in the DNA-testing startup 23andMe, where Brin's wife, Anne Wojcicki, is cofounder and CEO.
To some extent, their interest may be personal, said Paul Saffo, a veteran futurist and longtime Silicon Valley observer. As they get older, he noted, "the 30-somethings who launched the dot-com revolution are suddenly looking at mortality."
But health care is also a lucrative business that's ripe for new and disruptive thinking, Saffo added. "Health is an enormously large industry that's enormously inefficient," he said, "so it's only natural that someone would say, 'There's money to be made here.' "
While Google's primary business is in Internet advertising, Page has increasingly pushed the tech giant to pursue other so-called "moonshot" projects that have no immediate financial payoff, such as its driverless car and the wearable computer known as Glass. With more than $50 billion in revenue last year, the company has ample cash to invest in new ventures.
In brief statements, Page and Levinson glossed over any specific plans for products or how the new company will make money. It's unclear if Calico will open its own medical labs, although a person familiar with the venture said it will undoubtedly embrace Google's penchant for collecting vast amounts of data and analyzing it for relationships, trends and causes.
"It's still very early days, so there's not much more to share yet," Page wrote in a post on the Google+ social network.
Google is taking the unusual step of funding Calico as a spinoff company, rather than housing it in the Google X division that oversees Glass and the self-driving car. Levinson, who reportedly owns more than $75 million in Apple stock, is also investing personally in the venture.
A spokesman declined to give details about Calico's financial structure or other leadership, although Page wrote that "new investments like this are very small by comparison to our core business."
Reaction to the venture ranged from skeptical to awestruck. After Page spoke about it in an exclusive interview with Time magazine, the newsweekly headlined this week's cover story: "Can Google solve Death?" That prompted some online jokes about temerity and chutzpah.
Page has said before that he believes technology can solve a variety of human problems. Industry officials, meanwhile, said Levinson's track record in biotech gives Calico some instant credibility.
"Art Levinson is highly regarded by everyone," said Travis Blaschek-Miller, a spokesman for the BayBio, a regional biotech trade group. He noted that Levinson is a trained biochemist who worked as a research scientist at Genentech before he was promoted into management there.
Levinson was CEO from 1995 to 2009 at the thriving biotech company, which is based in South San Francisco but owned by the corporate parent of Swiss health-care giant Hoffman-La Roche. He will remain as a director at Hoffman-La Roche.
Some of Levinson's other corporate ties could be problematic. He and Page became acquainted while Levinson sat on Google's board from 2004 to 2009. But Levinson resigned his seat after federal regulators began looking into concerns about Levinson also serving on the board at Apple, as the two companies were starting to compete head-to-head in mobile computing and other sectors. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt left Apple's board around the same time.
Levinson now will continue as chairman of Apple's board, which could raise new questions about whether Apple and Google are competing or cooperating in the health-care field. Both companies are working on so-called wearable computing devices, which could have potential medical uses.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/brandonbailey.