Alphabet’s Ruth Porat opens up about her bouts with cancer and Google’s work in early detection

Health, Fitness & Food

Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat

FABRICE COFFRINI | AFP | Getty Images

Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat opened up about her battles with cancer, and how her personal experience inspired her to support health-care initiatives at Google and its parent company.

“I know how incredibly fortunate I am, but I also know that for far too many, a diagnosis comes too late and the best care is beyond reach,” wrote Porat, who overcame breast cancer in 2001 and 2004, in a blog post on Monday. “And that’s where Google has focused its work: to bring healthcare innovations to everyone.”

Porat joins a small but growing number of technology executives who are publicly discussing their personal health struggles or those of family members. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has spoken about his genetic link to Parkinson’s Disease and his search for a cure, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has written about his experiences fathering a son with severe developmental disabilities.

Alphabet has expanded its research in health and life sciences in recent years and brought in senior leaders, such as ex-hospital CEO David Feinberg, to help develop a strategy. Projects include Verily, whose work is moving into clinical trials, artificial intelligence research out of Google Brain and efforts to improve the quality of Google’s health-related search results. This month, the company brought on two former Obama health officials, Karen DeSalvo and Robert M. Califf.

Porat said Alphabet is also specifically working to bring its technology to improve cancer care and help with early disease detection. Earlier this year, she spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos and touted the company’s major breakthrough in using AI to detect metastatic breast cancer.

“Google hopes AI research will further fuel progress on both detection and diagnosis,” Porat wrote. Today we can’t easily distinguish the cancers we need to find from those that are unlikely to cause further harm.”

Targeting the health sector

Alphabet still relies on Google’s advertising business to generate the majority of its revenue, which jumped 23% to $136.8 billion in 2018. Porat and the executive team have been diversifying, particularly through the company’s cloud unit, which is investing heavily in targeting the medical industry and recently signed a lucrative deal with Mayo Clinic.

Within Google, Porat said there’s a team working on a deep learning algorithm to help pathologists better analyze tissue samples and pinpoint the location of the cancer more quickly,  adding that the company achieves its biggest successes when it works with medical professionals.

One of the company’s more ambitious investments is in an early cancer detection start-up called Freenome, which was funded by Verily. Venture arm Google Ventures has also increased investment in the health space, with life sciences now making up more than one-third of its portfolio.

As a top Alphabet executive and one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley, Porat tends to keep a low profile aside from the company’s quarterly earnings announcements. When her name shows up, it’s typically around issues related to Alphabet’s finances, like real estate expansion, and future businesses. 

She also joined 20,000 employees who protested the company’s handling of a sexual assault last year.

In Monday’s blog post, she talked about how frightening her diagnoses were for her and her three children and how far they’ve come since.

“I was initially terrified,” she wrote. “Our three kids were only five, seven, and nine at the time of my first diagnosis, and all I wanted was to live to see them grow up. I’m grateful I had options and access to treatments, but no aspect of it was pleasant. Last year, I had the joy of seeing our youngest son graduate from college.”

WATCH: Alphabet’s CFO Ruth Porat says ‘We are already subject to oversight’

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