IBM Watson Health Begins To Take Shape

IBM doesn’t build new units lightly, but last April it launched IBM Watson Health. Since that time the company has been busy buying companies including Merge Healthcare, forging partnerships with the likes of Apple, CVS and Johnson and Johnson, hiring a new General Manager and purchasing the unit’s new headquarters in Cambridge, MA.

That’s quite a bit of action in five months, but Steve Gold, CMO for Watson at IBM says the hope is to build a community around attacking the big problems in healthcare in the U.S. and around the world.

“It’s about how do we build a community among the various stakeholders in which all of them stand to gain by coming together and sharing information,” he said.

In that sense, it hopes to work the way the open source community approaches a problem. You build a community of like-minded people to work on a common goal, and as solutions develop, businesses grow around these projects and people make money. The underlying project is community driven, but that in itself drives new business models.

That has led to a series of moves designed to encourage that community to come together and that includes choosing Boston to be its headquarters. It’s not a coincidence IBM chose the Boston area. It has a strong life sciences focus along with world-class hospitals and colleges (including MIT and Harvard).

New Digs, New Friends

The new headquarters in Cambridge (just across the river from Boston) is large enough to scale as the unit grows. Gold wouldn’t give an exact number, but The Boston Business Journal reported that the company would be hiring hundreds of clinicians and researchers to work at the facility.

IBM has been enhancing its partner network and announced several new partners today including Boston Children’s Hospital. The deal with BCH involves using Watson technology to drive the OPENPediatrics initiative, a program designed to help share pediatric medical information with hospitals and medical professionals around the world.

The company is also working with The Columbia University Medical Center, where they are using Watson technology “to help oncologists in the Columbia Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center translate DNA insights into personalized treatment options for patients,” according to the announcement. IBM reports that this is the 16th medical institution working with Watson on Cancer research.

Apple Partnership

At the time of the announcement in April, IBM also announced partnerships with Apple, Johnson and Johnson and Medtronics. In fact, the Apple partnership is already beginning to come together with projects based on Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit.

As part of today’s broad announcement, IBM indicated that it would be working with Sage Bionetworks’ Open Biomedical Research Platform around the first Apple projects. Sage will be collecting information from Apple Devices using ResearchKit developer tools, initially with breast cancer and Parkinson’s patients. It will be aggregating storing, curating and analyzing the information coming in from the Apple Devices. IBM will be providing the underlying technology with its IBM Watson Health Cloud platform.

The Apple partnership is a great idea that took on a life of its own, Gold said. “When we approached them, they were thrilled we could help facilitate data from wearables, nutrition and other areas.”

In addition to all of this, the company announced the IBM Watson Health Cloud for Life Science Compliance. It’s not a name that exactly rolls off the tongue, but it is designed to provide the tools and technologies for companies to build a fully compliant research cloud.  The solution is built on top of IBM Softlayer, its Infrastructure as a Service offering, and offers what the company claims is a fully compliant cloud solution for the heavily regulated life sciences industry.

IBM is throwing a lot of resources at Watson Health and it hopes to use its technology to drive change across the healthcare industry. The Watson Health headquarters will be the center of that, Gold said.

“It’s so much broader than healthcare It’s, about education, prevention and wellness. All of these touchpoint are correlated,” he said.