IBM Extends Health Care Bet With Under Armour, Medtronic

  • Watson data supports fitness app, information for diabetics
  • Company relying on supercomputer unit for new revenue streams

IBM announced a deal with sports and fitness retailer Under Armour Inc. to use machine learning technology from Watson and showed off an application for diabetic care developed with the supercomputer’s data, highlighting the company’s effort to expand Watson’s capabilities for the health-care industry.

IBM and Under Armour released an updated fitness application for Apple Inc.’s iPhones that uses data powered by Watson, IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty said Wednesday in a speech at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Separately, Medtronic Plc CEO Omar Ishrak joined Rometty on stage to unveil a prototype for a diabetes-management app that tests have shown may be capable of predicting hypoglycemic events as early as three hours in advance. The application still needs to go through regulatory review -- it will roll out this summer, Rometty said.

The ability to predict the hypoglycemic events is a “breakthrough,” she said. “Up to three hours in advance is what prevents dangerous health events from happening.”

Rometty is betting that Watson will be a major long-term growth area for International Business Machines Corp. as the Armonk, New York-based company works to reverse a 14-quarter revenue slide by shifting its focus to cloud computing and analytics. IBM has targeted Watson’s services on health-care and the Internet of Things industries and has created company groups devoted to the two markets. 

The technology provides what Rometty calls cognitive computing, using machine learning algorithms to produce prescriptive and predictive analysis. Revenue from the Watson unit -- expected to reach $1 billion in the near term -- now is included in the company’s analytics group, which recorded $17 billion in sales in 2014. 

Fitness Technology

Powered by Watson technology, Under Armour’s application, UA Record, aggregates and analyzes an individual’s health and fitness data to provide personalized coaching and advice. A few examples include the app telling a user the average steps taken daily and bed time for a person their age.

Under Armour has spent about $700 million buying companies that make mobile workout apps, such as MapMyFitness. The goal is to create what CEO Kevin Plank has called a “halo effect” to entice more purchases and loyalty from customers of the Baltimore-based company. It turned these acquisitions into a suite of software used by 155 million people that can integrate with a smartphone’s motion sensors and other devices like Fitbit Inc.’s wristbands. All the activity can be tracked through the UA Record mobile app, which is a health dashboard that also has a link to the company’s online store and its own social network.

Diabetic Care

Medtronic sells an insulin pump for diabetics that turns off when blood sugar gets too low and has approval for a device that sends readings to a patient’s smartphone. Working with IBM, it wants to anticipate how each person’s behavior will affect their blood-sugar levels and help them make choices to improve their health, said Hooman Hakami, president of Medtronic’s diabetes group.

Patients with diabetes either don’t produce or can’t properly break down the hormone insulin, which converts blood sugar into energy. More than 29 million Americans have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The application demonstrated at CES gathers a patient’s readings from Medtronic insulin pumps and glucose monitors, and combines them with information taken from the individual’s activity trackers and diet. The system uses pattern recognition gleaned through IBM’s Watson to provide feedback on how a patient can manage their diabetes.

The companies hope to eventually give patients real-time information on how their actions affect blood-sugar levels, and provide coaching that will help them adjust as needed to stay in a healthy range. For example, a patient may get a text telling them they have an 85 percent risk of developing low blood sugar within an hour and suggesting they closely monitor their levels and eat something if necessary.

The goal is to “make management of diabetes something you don’t notice,” Ishrak said at the event.

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