Verily, Qualcomm Life, IBM Watson weigh in on what makes a good digital health partnership

By Jonah Comstock
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These days, it seems like the digital health world runs increasingly on partnerships. Last week, representatives from three tech companies famous for their partnerships — IBM Watson Health, Qualcomm Life, and Verily Life Sciences (formerly Google X Life Sciences — shared the stage at the Digital Medicine Connect conference in Boston to talk about what makes a good collaboration work.

“I think at the end of the day it really comes down to vision and fit,” Jared Josleyn, partnerships and business development lead at Verily said. “There are companies that fit with different companies for a lot of different reasons…There’s not a collaboration we love or we don’t love. We love the opportunity to create or to try to execute on this digital health mission that we have.”

All three speakers talked about the challenges that the likes of medical device and pharma companies have balancing cooperation and competition.

“You’re going to get into a discussion about IP and it’s going to get uncomfortable, because tech companies like to talk about open source and sharing data, and pharma companies are like ‘Oh my gosh, nobody can see my molecules’,” Kathleen McGroddy Goetz, VP of partnerships and solutions at IBM Watson Health, said. “So how do you get into it but really preserve the relationship?”

James Mault, Qualcomm Life’s chief medical officer and vice president, said that technology companies like Qualcomm were attractive partners precisely because they could serve as connectors between groups that want to work together but are afraid of sharing too many secrets. 

“Qualcomm has a 30-year history of being able to adeptly partner and enable a massive ecosystem of every cellphone manufacturer and every carrier on the planet,” he said. “That Switzerland-type approach is really key and why we’re nonthreatening to players within healthcare who otherwise have a hard time collaborating with each other.”

He used the example of Philips Healthcare, which recently partnered with Qualcomm.

“Philips has had its own proprietary closed system for well over a decade and was doing really well with it, and yet, what they’ve come to recognize is that closed systems are very limiting and don’t allow you to collaborate with others and take advantage of the R&D expense of multiple other parties doing something related, but different, to what you’re doing,” Mault said. “A good example of that is the Respironics group within Philips. They needed to go from having those devices report the data just from that device to being a more comprehensive COPD solution where they need to be able to draw data from pulse oximeters and blood pressure meters.”

But the tension between collaboration and competition is bigger than just being afraid to share data or secrets. To move the needle on things like medication adherence, pharma companies and payers might actually need to build tech tools that enable competitors’ products.

“We’ve already seen pharma and medtech try to venture off and do some of this stuff, and what they end up with unfortunately is very narrow solution that’s a bit of a one-off,” Mault said. “And the last thing a payer like United wants is ten different one-off solutions that don’t interoperate and have nothing to do with each other. … Don’t underestimate the absolute necessity of [interoperability]. No matter what it is you build or do, it has to work with all kinds of other stuff, and if you build a silo or one-off that doesn’t work with lots of other stuff, it’s not going to succeed.”

Josleyn said that Verily and Sanofi are doing just that with Onduo, the new joint venture the two just launched focused on diabetes management.

“They took a leap forward to ensure that that system that’s not necessarily my pharma insulin shot or my CGM or my closed-loop app,” he said. “I’ve created this system that I’m going to benefit from in the marketplace because I’m creating a better behavioral model, but very well Onduo could be selling a Lily insulin, or a Novartis one. It’s about the customer. You’re still developing the best products you can possibly develop, but you’re still providing a solution for the broader ecosystem.”New Balance M530PSB