IBM Backs Genetics Firm In Pursuit Of Watson Powered Personalized Medicine Apps

Watson Goes Live at Cleveland Clinic

IBM today announced that it has invested an undisclosed sum in a genetics laboratory startup called Pathway Genomics, bringing the company’s funding total to $80 million since its 2008 launch. Pathway Genomics markets a series of targeted genetics tests, such as cancer screenings that look for key chromosome mutations, tests that look for resistance or hypersensitivity to common prescribed medications, and tests that attempt to help consumers with pain management and weight management. Next, the company hopes to bring a new service to its customers, a personalized health information and symptom checking app.

Pathway Genomics is setting out to build a smartphone app that will leverage IBM’s Watson supercomputer to process medical questions posed by its customers. The app will look to both the patient’s genetic profile, as well at a laundry list of other information sources, suggesting that the app will be one of the first to leverage the new health data aggregation services that smartphone manufacturers have been developing, like Apple’s HealthKit. Pathway’s claims that its app will consider electronic medical record data, biometric data consumed from wearable devices, and other information. The app will then feed the user’s question, their genetic profile, and any available medical data into the Watson supercomputer, which will interpret the question, and reference its growing medical database to provide a personalized response.

Watson has been a bit of a conundrum for IBM since its rein on Jeopardy ended. The Watson project has certainly been great publicity for the company, but its impact on the bottom line has been far less substantial. Despite bold initiatives announced with some of the country’s best hospitals and clinics, Watson engineers have yet to roll out a solution that is ready for prime time. The supercomputer is helping oncologists treat lung cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering and MD Anderson. At the Cleveland Clinic, Watson is being used to extract the most important and relevant pieces of information from a patient’s EHR to present to a clinician prior to seeing a patient on rounds. At the Mayo Clinic, Watson is being used to pair cancer patients with clinical trials. Each project, in and of itself, sounds groundbreaking and full of promise, but after several years of work, Watson engineers are still tinkering and have yet to develop a marketable product.

Now, IBM is turning to the masses. In January, IBM announced that it would be adding Watson as a callable service on its cloud-hosting platform. This meant that any web or app developers hosting their solutions on the IBM cloud platform could incorporate Watson’s computing power into their products. To entice developers, IBM also announced a $100 million investment fund that it would dole out to startups interested in building cloud-based services that were powered by Watson. Pathway Genomics, and its new consumer health app, are one such company. It’s likely there will be many more, but its not so clear anymore that Watson is on track to become the disruptive force in healthcare that many once speculated it would. With billions invested already, there is good reason to believe that internally at IBM, the pressure is on for Watson to transition from an R&D project into a significant revenue generating business unit. If it can’t, the day will eventually come that IBM loses its taste for expensive and ambitious Watson research projects.

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