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COMPANY ON $4B SPENDING SPREE


By Stacy Lawrence

Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO IBM Watson Health was a star at this year's J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference, announcing a trio of deals with high profile players. The latest was with the U.S. FDA to work together to define a way for to exchange health data across a variety of technology platforms with an initial focus on oncology data.

In fact, Armonk, N.Y.-based Watson Health packed its conference room to overflowing, with standing room only well out into the hallways. But audience members were treated to a presentation that was notably short on business details, with a focus almost entirely on a discussion of its partners and a few related case studies. Earlier in the week, it disclosed a new partnerships with Illumina Inc. in oncology. (See Medical Device Daily, Jan. 10, 2017.)

Struggling IBM is looking to its artificial intelligence platform Watson to bolster a turnaround now that its computer business is edging toward obsolescence – with health care one of the main industry verticals it's addressing. Watson Health was created as a separate business unit in April 2015, and has been on a massive M&A tear, spending more than $4 billion on a series of major acquisitions to bolster its capabilities.

Over the last few years, it purchased population health player Truven Health Analytics for $2.6 billion and medical image management company Merge Healthcare for $1 billion – in addition to smaller deals for population health player Phytel and cloud-based health care intelligence company Explorys.

DOWN TO BUSINESS?

Deborah DiSanzo, general manager of IBM Watson Health, declined entirely to discuss revenues for the unit, but did highlight Medtronic plc when queried on the identity of the businesses' largest client. She repeatedly pointed to Medtronic, and the Sugar.IQ app that the pair developed, throughout her presentation.

Sugar.IQ debuted last fall and is intended to be used with real-time continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) and insulin data from Medtronic pumps and glucose sensors. It's based on a 10,000-patient database of information from Medtronic and is intended to offer personalized guidance for everyday diabetes decision-making.

Once it is available commercially, the Sugar.IQ app is slated to be offered to all diabetic patients with Medtronic CGMs and insulin pumps – it's intended as a companion app with the Minimed Connect mobile accessory.

"Medtronic is a very important customer for us. What we did, in a matter of weeks, was to look through 10,000 patient records," said DiSanzo. "We discovered we could predict the onset of a hypoglycemic event. We are updating the features on that app every month. Medtronic is a huge client," she concluded, adding that the revenue model for the Watson Health business is "software as a service."

Watson Health is oriented toward five areas: imaging, oncology, government, life sciences and value-based health care. And it's done some partnering deals with big names across all of those, most recently including Celgene Corp., the Broad Institute, Illumina Inc., the Cleveland Clinic and Pfizer Inc.

IBM AND THE FDA

Watson Health and the FDA are conducting a joint initiative to utilize blockchain technology to secure all sorts of health data. The project is intended to empower patients with the ability to have easy and routine access to all of their own health care information, including making it portable and shareable.

Blockchain technology is designed to enable relevant organizations to work together. It keeps an audit trail of all data transactions in an unalterable, distributed ledger. IBM and the FDA will look to use a blockchain framework to enable information across a variety of different kinds of health data including clinical trials and real-world evidence data.

The idea is eventually to enable patients and organizations to routinely exchange all sorts of health data from sources such as electronic medical records, genomic data, as well as mobile devices, wearables and internet-of-things devices. DiSanzo said the FDA partnership "could result in secure patient consent and the secure exchange of health data."

The FDA initiative is under a two-year agreement, with the pair committing to sharing initial research findings this year.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR WATSON?

Watson Health has big ambitions, citing a $360 billion addressable market. The business has 7,000 employees globally and stakes a claim to 10,000 clients and partners. It also has a massive reach when it comes to patient data, including analyzing claims data for 44 percent of Medicare beneficiaries, DiSanzo said.

"We have amassed the largest nongovernmental data set available," she said of the health care industry with access to 200 million insurance claims, 100 million health records and 30 billion medical images.

"Machine learning and medical imaging is very difficult. IBM has been working on machine learning in cardiovascular and breast imaging for a decade. IBM is working on FDA clearance – as is everyone else," said DiSanzo noting that this technology could help in emerging countries, which have dire shortages when it comes to oncologists.

DiSanzo was dismissive of potential competitors when it comes to AI, citing IBM's long history in the field several times.

"We started reading electronic health records five years ago with the Cleveland Clinic; we can read any unstructured text. We have acquired the best assets in the industry that we can build on top of. There are a number of start-up companies entering machine learning, it's going to take them a lot of time," she concluded in the breakout session.



Published  January 12, 2017

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