BlackBerry Buys Stake In U.S. Healthcare IT Firm As It Shifts Focus To Niche Markets

BlackBerry has bought a minority stake in privately held U.S. healthcare IT firm NantHealth. The two companies told Reuters they are working together to develop a new smartphone tailored to the needs of the healthcare sector — with a launch pegged for late 2014 or early 2015, according to Jim Mackey, BlackBerry’s head of corporate development and strategic planning, speaking in an interview with the news agency.

Despite being designed as a mobile for diagnosticians and other healthcare workers, the forthcoming handset will still include standard smartphone features — such as the ability to download consumer apps, view videos and play games.

“We do plan to make the device available for all, but it will be optimized for viewing 3D images and CT scans,” said Mackey, adding that the tie-up exemplifies BlackBerry’s fresh focus on regulated industries.

The embattled Canadian smartphone maker is in the process of realigning its business under new CEO John Chen to focus on core areas where demand for its locked-down network and security-compliant mobile devices remains.

That realignment boils down to targeting the niche markets, such as government bodies or, indeed, healthcare organisations, where users have to manage access to sensitive, regulated data. It’s the sort of niche, vertical focus that BlackBerry’s original business had — before it branched out into consumer devices, and ultimately got overwhelmed by touchscreen-centric devices running Android and iOS — making it something of a retrenchment to its traditional core for BlackBerry.

For its part, NantHealth’s current suite of products include diagnostic tools, patient and clinician portals, a cloud-based health information system, and connectivity systems for relaying data from various hospital devices back to central electronic medical records.

As well as working together to develop a medical market handset, NantHealth said the BlackBerry buy-in will allow it to expand the services it currently offers and push more of its services out to secure mobile devices.

Financial terms of the deal between NantHealth and BlackBerry have not been disclosed.

BlackBerry reported its Q4 earnings last month, posting a smaller loss than analysts had feared — but still $435 million down, with revenue dropping 64 percent from 2013 levels to $976 million. That loss was at least far less than the previous quarter when the company posted a loss of $4.4 billion.