Big Tech Made Huge Moves in the Healthcare Industry in the Past Yearby@irinakozerog
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Big Tech Made Huge Moves in the Healthcare Industry in the Past Year

by Irina KozerogApril 12th, 2023
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In 2021, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta invested over $3.1 billion in the healthcare industry. Chinese big tech companies, including ByteDance, Alibaba, and Tencent, are also investing hundreds of millions of dollars in startups and new technologies related to healthcare. Big tech companies are seeking a share of the market, estimated to be worth more than $8 trillion.

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With shifting consumer demands for fast and convenient services, healthcare organizations are embracing digital transformation. In turn, the Big Tech companies are accelerating their pursuit of the healthcare market. They are leveraging their vast resources and data insights to develop innovative solutions that could change the game for both consumers and medical professionals alike. Below, I break down how these tech giants are working to reshape healthcare with new initiatives, products, and investments.

Big tech companies are increasing their investments in healthcare.

In 2021, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta collectively invested over $3.1 billion in the healthcare industry, representing a twofold increase from the amount invested in 2016. The year 2020, marred by the pandemic, witnessed a remarkable surge, with FAMGA investing $3.8 billion. Alphabet is particularly active in this respect, having invested $1.7 billion in "future health ideas" during the first six months of 2022 via subsidiaries such as Google Ventures, Gradient Ventures, and others. Since 2020, Alphabet has closed 100 deals in the domains of biology and healthcare.

Chinese big tech companies, including ByteDance, Alibaba, and Tencent, are also investing hundreds of millions of dollars in startups and new technologies related to healthcare. The big tech companies are seeking a share of the market, which is estimated to be worth more than $8 trillion, with $3.8 trillion of it in the US, according to CB Insights. The healthcare market is projected to have an average annual growth rate of almost 4% by 2024.

As CB Insights points out, big tech companies have all the means to successfully enter the healthcare industry: huge amounts of free cash on their balance sheets (over $100 billion for each of the five companies), an existing user base, and serious capabilities for collecting and processing large amounts of information.

There are several reasons why the investment boom in healthcare began now: the growing popularity of wearables, new opportunities for using AI in medicine, and the industry's general ambition to reduce healthcare costs through automation.

Alphabet’s healthcare-related projects: wearables, AI for drug development, and a patient data platform

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is heavily invested in healthcare and has a number of healthcare-related projects. One of their latest initiatives is Care Studio, which was released in the fall of 2021. This platform allows for the consolidation of patient health information from various sources into a single location, providing a more complete and comprehensive view of the patient's health. Additionally, Care Studio uses artificial intelligence to efficiently analyze and sort through the data.

In 2022, DeepMind, a company acquired by Alphabet in 2014 for $500 million, announced a significant breakthrough in the healthcare industry. Its AlphaFold algorithm can predict the spatial structure of nearly 200 million known proteins, allowing for faster development of new drugs. DeepMind specializes in developing artificial intelligence and, in 2016, introduced an algorithm that can diagnose eye diseases.

One year before the AlphaFold breakthrough, Alphabet created Isomorphic Labs, a company that will develop new drugs using artificial intelligence. Among Alphabet's healthcare investments are Freenome, a platform for early cancer detection; Overture, an embryology startup; and Metabiota, an analytics company that assesses the risks of future epidemics for humanity.

In 2021, Alphabet acquired Fitbit, a manufacturer of fitness trackers and smartwatches, for $2 billion. One of Fitbit's latest developments is a sensor that detects heart rhythm disturbances. The sensor received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in April 2022, enabling Alphabet to use it in its watches, bracelets, and even its Pixel smartphones.

Moreover, Alphabet's Nest smart home systems now have healthcare-related functionality. In 2021, they added a Soli sensor to the system, which tracks a person's sleep patterns without the need for wearables. As of 2022, there have been no significant updates on these developments.

Amazon: clinics, telemedicine, and online pharmacies

In the summer of 2022, Amazon announced the purchase of One Medical, a US-based network of clinics that provides telemedicine services and house calls. With an extensive network of over 8,000 partner companies, One Medical also offers healthcare services to their employees. As of Q1 2022, One Medical had a customer base of 767,000, a nearly 30% increase from the previous year. Experts compare the acquisition of One Medical to Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods in 2017, as the company seeks to build a comprehensive healthcare business and integrate it with other services.

This is not Amazon's first investment in healthcare.  In 2018, the company acquired PillPack, an online pharmacy, for $753 million. Two years later, Amazon launched its e-pharmacy, Amazon Pharmacy, based on PillPack's technology, in the US. At the time of the acquisition, PillPack's annual revenue was approximately $300 million.

Amazon also plans to expand its Amazon Care program to 20 more US cities by the end of 2022, with the potential to not only offer remote consultations, but also house calls. The company also reportedly intends to add psychological support to the range of services it offers. Amazon Care has been operating since the fall of 2019, initially providing telemedicine services to Amazon employees only. The program was later expanded to 20 cities in the US and made available to employees of other companies such as Hilton and Silicon Labs, who pay Amazon for the service based on the number of employees. As of the end of 2021, 40,000 employees from various companies used Amazon Care.

In 2022, Amazon signed an agreement with Teladoc Health, a telemedicine company, to integrate Teladoc's services into its voice assistant Alexa. In the summer of 2022, Amazon also signed an agreement with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to conduct clinical trials of a vaccine for melanoma and breast cancer.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Amazon has launched a two-year, $20 million initiative called the Diagnostic Development Initiative to study COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, as well as develop methods for their diagnosis. During the initial waves of the pandemic, Amazon launched its own COVID-19 diagnostic kit called Amazon DX, but the project has since been discontinued.

Amazon Web Services, the company's cloud service, is developing support for the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) medical information exchange standard, allowing its services to be used to create a unified interface for working with medical software.

Amazon also has its own fitness tracker, Amazon Halo, which did not receive any significant updates in 2022.

Microsoft: cloud services

In the spring of 2022, Microsoft announced new capabilities for its cloud-based service, Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare. One notable addition is Azure Health Data Services, which allows for the consolidation of various medical data types, such as clinical studies, medical imaging, and medical device data, into a single platform.

Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare was initially introduced in 2020, as a comprehensive cloud ecosystem that combined Microsoft's existing services, such as Microsoft 365, chatbots, and the Azure cloud platform, to cater to the healthcare industry. Microsoft had also announced its plans to add new services to Cloud Healthcare, which was confirmed in the spring of 2022. The company also stated that it would utilize the AI technology of Nuance, a company it acquired for $20 billion in March 2022, to further develop healthcare services.

According to CB Insights, Microsoft holds the largest number of patents related to medical technologies, followed by Alphabet and Apple.

Apple: iPhone and Watch health features, medical research

In July 2022, Apple released a report detailing its healthcare strategy, which includes two main areas of focus. The first involves the development of health-related features for the Apple Watch and iPhone, which already collect significant amounts of user health information. The second area involves collaboration with the government and medical communities to facilitate medical research.

Apple is striving to transform its Apple Watch into a smart health monitor by utilizing cutting-edge third-party applications and collaborating with researchers to develop tools for new scientific breakthroughs. Apple has already integrated its smartwatches into 55 healthcare initiatives across 17 countries and its Health Records digital medical card is accepted by 800 medical institutions in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Apple regularly obtains FDA approval for its medical applications and offers medical practitioners access to multiple developer kits so that they could create their own apps. Rumors circulated that the company was planning to launch its own network of primary healthcare clinics with doctors hired directly by Apple; however, no significant progress has been made.

In addition to its healthcare initiatives, Apple also offers its Fitness+ service, which provides video and audio workouts. However, there were no significant updates to the service in 2022.

Meta: healthcare in the Metaverse

Virtual universes, or metaverses, have the potential to greatly enhance telemedicine capabilities by utilizing VR technology. The use of digital twins, which can be used to create a patient's digital replica, also has great potential in understanding how quickly a person will recover after a specific surgery. While Meta has not announced any definite plans in this area, the company released a promotional video in mid-July highlighting the benefits of Metaverse for surgeons,  allowing them to practice their skills in a virtual reality environment prior to performing operations. In the fall of 2021, Meta posted several healthcare-related job openings on LinkedIn.

Meta is actively promoting its Oculus VR headset and Meta Portal video communication device to medical professionals. The Oculus headset has many potential applications in telemedicine and working with digital twins, and can also be used for pre-operative training in virtual reality. Several US clinics have already adopted the Meta Portal device to help patients stay connected with their loved ones during hospital stays. The demand for the device has increased significantly during the pandemic, as it has been utilized to alleviate the effects of lockdowns and social isolation.

However, the company's healthcare plans may be hindered by ongoing legal proceedings linked to the accusations of unauthorized patient data collection through Facebook.

ByteDance: expanding into healthcare with acquisitions and online services

In August 2022, ByteDance made headlines with its $1.5 billion acquisition of Amcare Healthcare, one of the largest private networks of women's and children's clinics in China. The network is now fully owned by two ByteDance subsidiaries. The company has not disclosed any details of the deal or future plans for the network.

ByteDance's acquisition of Amcare Healthcare suggests that the company is following in the footsteps of tech giants like Amazon and Alphabet, who have also invested heavily in the healthcare sector. Bloomberg also highlights that Chinese companies are investing in healthcare as a means to safeguard themselves from government scrutiny, as the Chinese authorities have been cracking down on "disorderly capital expansion" among big tech companies since 2021.

ByteDance also has a medical service called Xiaohe, which allows users to consult with doctors online and make appointments. Similar services are available in the Chinese market from companies such as Alibaba and the insurance company Ping An.

Alibaba: e-pharmacies and blockchain for clinics

Alibaba's subsidiary, AliHealth, is a leader in China's market for online and offline sales of both prescription and non-prescription drugs. According to its H1 2021 financial report, the majority of Alibaba Health's revenue (84%) comes from direct sales of drugs through its own pharmacies, with another 13% from online sales. The company also provides medical insurance services, which are utilized by approximately 250 million people.

However, the company's stated goal is to develop medicine through big data and utilize the internet to "create fair and accessible medical services." One of their recent projects involves using blockchain technology to integrate the medical infrastructure of the city of Changzhou, which has a population of over 4.5 million people.

Tencent: telemedicine and robots

Tencent, another major player in the Chinese market, is also making substantial investments in the healthcare sector. In the summer of 2022, Tencent launched a new telemedicine service called i-Care, which is built on the Tencent Cloud platform. The primary goal of i-Care is to enhance the treatment efficacy and patient experience in healthcare facilities. It is equipped with a robot that can turn text into speech, translate between Chinese and English, and has an integrated messenger.

In addition to its investments in the Chinese market, Tencent is expanding to India and the United States. The company, along with Alphabet and Amazon, invested in Grail, a startup developing solutions for early cancer detection.

Key Takeaways:

  • In 2021, FAMGA invested a total of more than $3.1 billion in the healthcare industry. In the first half of 2022, Alphabet became the most active investor in healthcare with $1.7 billion in financing. Since 2020, Alphabet has closed 100 deals in the field of biology and healthcare.
  • In the summer of 2022, Amazon announced its plans to acquire the One Medical network of clinics for $3.9 billion, with the aim of expanding its existing program under the Amazon Care brand. This program currently provides telemedicine services to Amazon's own employees as well as employees of other companies.
  • Microsoft offers a comprehensive cloud-based solution called Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare, designed to streamline the work of medical professionals. In 2022, the company introduced new services to the platform, including Azure Health Data Services, which consolidates medical data, enabling different types of medical information to be collected in a single, secure location.
  • In the summer of 2022, Apple released a report outlining its strategy in healthcare.  The company aims to advance the use of the Apple Watch and iPhone in the medical field by collaborating with clinics and medical institutions to develop joint programs and tools that improve healthcare delivery.
  • Meta is focusing on the use of its VR headset Oculus Quest and the potential applications of the Metaverse in medicine. Additionally, the company is directing its attention to the development of its video communication device, Meta Portal.
  • Chinese technology firms are keeping up with their global counterparts. ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, recently acquired a network of clinics for $1.5 billion. Also, Alibaba has established a dedicated subsidiary called AliHealth, which is actively exploring ways to integrate blockchain technology into the healthcare sector.