Google employees must avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, according to the company's code of conduct. But Sergey Brin is exempt from such bureaucratic trifles. The cofounder skirted ethical lines when he loaned money to 23andMe, a genetic-testing startup cofounded by his wife, Anne Wojcicki, and later had Google repay that loan in the course of investing in that company. The Google board's audit committee and CEO Eric Schmidt blithely signed off on the deal, however. Now, Brin has found a new way to route money to 23andMe, this time through a charity — thereby boosting, at least notionally, the value of Google's investment and his wife's net worth. Brin can claim it's all for a good cause, but the deal stinks to high heaven.
Brin has a personal foundation, funded with some of his Google fortune. One of the largest recipients of his largesse is the Michael J. Fox Foundation, an organization founded by the Canadian actor and dedicated to researching Parkinson's disease, from which Fox suffers.
In May, 23andMe announced that it was signing up Parkinson's patients for its genetic-testing services. The tests would be paid for by a $600,000 grant from the Fox foundation.
Wojcicki described the approach in a Huffington Post op-ed as "Research 2.0." To our ears, this sounds more like a good old-fashioned back-scratching arrangement.
Here are the questions people ought to be asking: Was Brin's donation really a donation, since some of it ended up going into his wife's pockets? And should the Fox grant count as revenues for 23andMe, since the money can be traced back to Brin, the cofounder of Google, an important investor in the startup? If IRS and SEC officials don't start looking into the deals, then they're not doing their jobs.
How can Brin make this right, if he really believes in his company's code of conduct and the "don't be evil" culture he helped foster at Google? Google should immediately sell its shares in 23andMe, at cost. 23andMe should return the Fox grant. And the Michael J. Fox foundation should return Brin's donation.
Brin, whose net worth was recently estimated at $18.5 billion, can easily afford to invest personally in his wife's startup. And there's no conflict in doing so; he'd merely be seen as a supportive, if indulgent, spouse. The problem comes when he starts using other people's money to fund Wojcicki's ventures. Google shareholders shouldn't be funding her experiments; neither should the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Nor should U.S. taxpayers be footing the bill. Especially considering that 23andMe's tests may not even be legal, according to the state of California.
Google's success has persuaded Brin that he doesn't need to listen to other people's advice, or follow their petty little rules; his gut instincts have made him fabulously wealthy, so why should he? He may not have crossed any legal lines in this latest episode of self-dealing — but it shows that he's on a path to do so. Sergey, stop now, before you really embarrass yourself.