Is Google a competitor or partner to Big Pharma? Roche's CEO doesn't know, yet

Roche CEO Severin Schwan

The advance of Google ($GOOG) and other tech firms into life sciences has given drug developers a new source of partners with complementary skills, but also raised an awkward question: Long term, are these companies allies or rivals? For Roche ($RHHBY) CEO Severin Schwan, the answer is still unclear.

Japanese news service Nikkei put the quandary to Schwan in the most direct way possible, asking: "Google: Competitor or partner in the future?" Schwan is unsure. "I don't know yet. We will see how things go," he said. The uncertainty hasn't stopped Roche's peers from hooking up with Google. Roche's cross-town rival Novartis ($NVS) has licensed "smart" contact lens technology from Google, while Sanofi ($SNY) has teamed up with the West Coast tech giant to collaborate on the application of miniaturized electronics to diabetes care.   

While Schwan has doubts about the long-term intentions of Google and its ilk, he is a believer in the value of pairing the IT skills of tech companies with the life science know-how of drug developers. "IT companies have a lot of capabilities around digitizing and analyzing data. Also, in analyzing big data, they have the tools, the algorithms, etc. But what they miss is the medical knowledge, the understanding of biology. They can't ask the right questions. They can program but they don't know what to program," Schwan said. This is where Schwan sees Roche and its peers contributing.

Schwan said Roche is "very open to those partnerships," citing its alliance with Foundation Medicine ($FMI)--which he described as "really an information company"--as an example of its willingness to embrace tech. The CEO has first-hand experience of how such alliances can sour, though. Schwan was at the helm of Roche when the decision was made to pull the plug on a collaboration with IBM ($IBM), which was working with the Swiss pharma on the creation of a nanopore-based sequencing platform until 2013.

- read the Nikkei interview
- and FiercePharma's take