Photographer: Gianluca Colla/Bloomberg

Roche Goes on Tech Shopping Spree for Startups to Boost Research

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  • Drugmaker bought three tech companies in the past eight months
  • After deal for Flatiron announced, Foundation Medicine gains

For Roche Holding AG, collaborating with tech startups is no longer enough. Now it wants to own them.

The Swiss oncology giant bought three tech companies and joined forces with another in the past eight months as it seeks to take advantage of a flood of data from patients and clinical studies. The most recent deal, a $1.9 billion takeover of Flatiron Health Inc., gives it a platform to comb through medical records, gene sequences and insurance claims to find out what cancer therapies work.

“Real-world data -- and all the associated analytical tools, like machine learning -- this is a field which will get very important for research and development” and eventually for reimbursement, Roche Chief Executive Officer Severin Schwan said in an interview late last year. “We have made very conscious decisions to explore into this direction in a more strategic way, not just to stumble into it.”

Drugmakers and the insurers that decide whether therapies will be reimbursed are looking for evidence to guide both the development of new products and the use of treatments after they’re approved. Roche’s Flatiron deal is a harbinger of more deals to come, especially in the demanding field of oncology, said Pierre Corby, a Paris-based analyst for Oddo & Cie.

Google Backing

“It’s more and more complicated in the space of oncology to find the right treatment for the right person,” Corby said by telephone. “Even very smart oncologists have difficulties right now finding the right treatments and the right doses.”

Roche rose 0.7 percent to 225.05 Swiss francs at 4:06 p.m. in Zurich. The Flatiron deal is expected to close in the first half of this year.

The New York-based health-data startup was founded by Nat Turner and Zach Weinberg, who sold an ad tech business to Google almost a decade ago. Roche already owns almost 13 percent of Flatiron after leading a $175 million funding round in 2016. The company has raised more than $300 million from investors such as Google parent Alphabet Inc. and First Round Capital.

Flatiron’s technology is also aimed at enabling doctors to look at how other patients fare with various therapies and use those results to customize treatment for patients with similar illnesses. These personalized approaches have become an important part of treating cancer, where therapies often have very different results in patients whose disease appears similar.

Real-World Data

The pharma industry is increasingly turning to huge databases to gain understanding of complex interactions between drugs and organisms, and the overall impact that treatments have on the outcomes of health problems.

AstraZeneca Plc is ramping up its use of such real-world patient information to better understand the diseases it’s aiming at, as well as study drugs in development, according to Ludovic Helfgott, the vice president of the drugmaker’s cardiovascular, metabolism and renal unit. Analyzing data aggregated from patients’ medical records can help confirm or question observations from more rigorous randomized controlled trials, he said.

“You can have very quickly a massive amount of information that’s clinically relevant,” Helfgott said in an interview last month.

Meanwhile, tech sector heavyweights are also looking to move into the health industry. Inc. is working with Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. on employee health care. Earlier this month, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. said it was teaming up with AstraZeneca to improve medical services in China.

The various players could all wind up competing for the same assets, led “by health-care companies looking to buy digital health solutions before their competitors or the tech giants,” Unity Stoakes, co-founder of New York-based investment firm StartUp Health, said in an email. “This will be a wave of large companies buying up emerging innovation as early as possible, racing against the many new competitors attacking these markets.”

Roche and General Electric Co.’s health division made a deal last month to develop software to help oncologists make care decisions more quickly. Last November, Roche bought Viewics Inc., an analytics company that helps laboratories parse data to make business strategy decisions. And in June, Roche acquired mySugr, an app that helps people with diabetes track their blood glucose levels.

The Swiss company also holds more than half of the shares of Foundation Medicine Inc., which helps doctors and patients choose treatments based on the tumors’ genetic profiles. Foundation rose 3.3 percent at 10:08 a.m. in New York.

— With assistance by Bailey Lipschultz

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