IBM Watson launches health unit, acquires two companies, and teams up with Apple, Medtronic, J&J

By Jonah Comstock
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LifeLearn IBM WatsonIBM Watson has taken a giant step deeper into the healthcare industry with the formation of a new business unit called Watson Health and a new cloud offering called the Watson Health Cloud. The move also includes some big name partners -- Apple, Johnson and Johnson, and Medtronic -- and two acquisitions: Cleveland-based Explorys and Dallas-based Phytel.

Watson has been involved in healthcare since just after the technology was first introduced to the world on Jeopardy! One of its first use cases was in oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and IBM's first Watson ecosystem partners, WellTok and MDBuyline, were also health-related. So it's not a huge surprise that the company is now creating a full business unit dedicated to health. Watson Health will be based in Boston and will have at least 2,000 people on staff including consultants, medical practitioners, clinicians, developers, and researchers.

"Watson Health builds on years of collaborative relationships with leaders across the healthcare ecosystem,” Michael Rhodin, senior vice president of IBM Watson said in a statement. “The groundbreaking applications of Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities by medical clients and partners clearly demonstrated the potential to fundamentally change the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery worldwide. We’re excited to broaden access to world-class technology and to work with our partners to transform health and wellness for millions of people.”

The Apple partnership is particularly noteworthy, because it will allow researchers to combine the advantages of IBM Watson, Apple ResearchKit, and Apple HealthKit. Customers will be able to enter data through Apple's consumer-facing tools and then store and analyze that data on the cloud via Watson's sophisticated tools.

With Johnson and Johnson, the focus will be on creating app-based coaching systems using Watson. The initial focus area will be preoperative and postoperative care for joint replacement and spinal surgery. They also plan to launch apps focused on chronic conditions.

Finally, Watson will work with Medtronic to create personalized care management plans for people with diabetes. The data will come from Medtronic sensors, continuous glucometers and insulin pumps, and the analysis tools will come from Watson. Medtronic recently announced that it's working on a smartphone-connected CGM called Medtronic Guardian Connect.

The two acquisitions are both big data analytics companies. Explorys is a Cleveland Clinic spin-off that uses cloud computing to detect patterns in diseases and treatments. Phytel develops cloud-based tools to enhance care coordination and outcomes. Terms were not disclosed for either deal.