Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) invested $3.9 million in 23andMe, the bio-tech start-up of Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Sergey Brin, Google co-founder. While that's pocket change compared to Brin's net worth of around $14 billion (and even more of a drop in the bucket when you take into account the size of Google), it raises some interesting questions about ethics and conflicts of interest.
There's nothing inherently wrong about financing the start-up of a spouse of the company's founder, as long as it's done at arm's length. In terms of ethics, the question is, Would someone other than Ms. Wojcicki have been able to secure capital from Google for the same thing?
It seems unlikely. I can't find much record of Google investing in other bio-tech companies (if it does, it would probably be a sign of diworsification), although a Google spokesman said that the acquisition actually made strategic sense because, "They are developing new ways for people to make sense of their genetic information" -- and Google is all about information! Hmm . . .
This isn't a big deal, but it just doesn't smell quite right. At Enron, all employees were required to make their travel arrangements through an agency owned by Chairman Ken Lay's sister. Was that a big deal in itself? Probably not, but it was indicative of self-dealing on the part of the company's management that went far deeper than a travel agency.
Of course, I'm not suggesting for a second that Google is the next Enron, but I think investors should be on the lookout for more signs of related-party transactions and questionable dealings at Google.