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IBM Watson Health Taps Ex-Philips CEO as GM, Touts New Partners

Xconomy Boston — 

For a few months, we’ve been hearing about IBM Watson Health’s plan to open a new headquarters in the Boston area. On Thursday, the business unit held an event at its new office and announced some partnerships, as well as an important first hire in Cambridge, MA.

First, the people news: Deborah DiSanzo (pictured) is joining Big Blue as general manager of Watson Health. She was most recently CEO of Philips Healthcare, where she started in 2001 as vice president and general manager of cardiology systems before moving up the chain.

DiSanzo will help lead a global team of 2,000 from the new Watson Health headquarters near Kendall Square. The office at 75 Binney Street in Cambridge—a brand new building where Ariad Pharmaceuticals also has space—is expected to house 700-plus IBM employees. That headcount will include recent IBM acquisition Cloudant and team members from IBM Security, the bulk of whom occupy a building just a few blocks away.

The goal is to create a startup-like environment for Watson Health, following the model of IBM Watson’s Astor Place headquarters in New York’s East Village. A big draw of the area is the proximity to Kendall Square’s life sciences and pharmaceutical companies and Boston’s top hospitals—as well as the talent and expertise from those organizations.

“I’m in hour 22. I’m not planning to sleep,” DiSanzo says. “My e-mail account is exploding.”

Apparently, DiSanzo was in the audience when IBM senior vice president Michael Rhodin first announced Watson Health. She had even said, “I want to run that.” “I had wanted to work with IBM for years,” she says. “You come from this rich healthcare background, but you say, ‘We don’t have cognitive [computing] abilities, or the ability to amass data.’”

DiSanzo met in person with Rhodin about the job a week ago, and just sat down with IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty yesterday.

Things have been moving fast for Watson Health, too. Rhodin is a New York-based IBM veteran who spearheaded Watson’s move out of research and into its own business unit. He oversaw former Watson GM Manoj Saxena’s effort in Austin, TX, and the group’s move to New York. (Funny enough, Rhodin said he first learned about Watson like everyone else—through the computer’s “Jeopardy” performance in 2011. He also has Boston roots, having run IBM’s Lotus division in the 2000s.)

Watson’s supercomputer-like abilities are well documented—it can process huge amounts of information and literature, find patterns in data, and serve as a resource to help people make decisions in various fields. But it needed a focus. “We kept coming back to the problems of healthcare,” Rhodin says, and problems that many startups were trying to solve. “It’s all about the data. And Watson could do what startups [technology] couldn’t do—Watson could read.” That meant it had a deep knowledge base that could be connected to clinical concerns.

Opening gala at IBM Watson Health's new headquarters.

Opening gala at IBM Watson Health’s new headquarters.

The group’s focus on healthcare—and the creation of the Watson Health business unit—led to partnerships with the likes of MD Anderson, Cleveland Clinic, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, Epic Systems, Welltok, and CVS Health. Broadly speaking, Watson could help in many areas: speeding up clinical research, improving patient care and doctor workflow, and even analyzing consumers’ health data from smartwatches and other monitoring devices.

“The puzzle pieces all started to snap together around healthcare,” Rhodin says. “That’s all happened in the past four months.” Now the bigger goal is to create an ecosystem of developers and partners that build apps and services on Watson’s cloud-based platform. “It becomes a gravitational field that pulls in big partners. Some of them are big competitors,” he says.

Apple is one of those. IBM said today it is expanding Watson’s cloud platform to include, among other things, a “Care Manager” for population-health problems that integrates with Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit software; those programs enable people to use iPhones and Apple Watches to collect health data and share it with clinicians and researchers.

Some other Watson partnerships announced today include deals with Boston Children’s Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, Sage Bionetworks, and Teva Pharmaceuticals.

New headquarters of IBM Watson Health near Kendall Square (75 Binney Street).

New headquarters of IBM Watson Health near Kendall Square (75 Binney Street).