IBM Watson Health's new manager talks about returning to basics, doubling down

“Going forward, the word is focus,” the newly installed general manager of IBM’s beleaguered Watson Health division, former Ciox Health CEO Paul Roma, told FierceMedTech. 

The computing giant’s artificial intelligence project has seen its share of frustrations. A slew of ambitious goals—as high as revolutionizing the healthcare system writ large through the use of big data, from cancer research to care delivery—has largely remained out of reach so far.

And as discrepancies between its eventual offerings and earlier promises became clearer, the company began narrowing its pursuits to more successful areas.

“We’re going to double down on what's working, and we're going to get super focused on execution,” Roma said in an interview a few days into his new job at IBM’s Cambridge, Massachusetts-based shop. And since the unmet needs in healthcare have changed little over the past years, Watson may not need to keep expanding into novel use cases, he said.

“On a back-to-basics level, if we can execute on what’s in front of us with the clients that we have now, we’re going to be really successful.”

This contraction began months earlier: In April, IBM stopped making new pitches to pharma companies for Watson’s applications in AI-based drug discovery, though it said it would continue its ongoing work. And the year before that, it halted its offerings in hospital management settings. Instead, the company said it plans to refocus efforts in adjacent areas such as clinical development.

Meanwhile, Watson Health’s previous general manager, Deborah DiSanzo, stepped down last October after three years in the role. Formerly CEO of Philips Healthcare, she moved to the IBM’s strategy team for its Cognitive Solutions arm, which governs the company’s larger AI and blockchain endeavors.

Roma joins from Ciox, a health IT firm that handle tens of millions of data and medical records requests annually for more than half of the nation’s 6,000-plus hospitals. Before that, he was chief analytics officer for Deloitte’s global consultancy. Both offered hands-on experience with IBM and Watson Health’s assets as they’ve grown over the past decade.

“I got to see how the sausage is made,” he said. “Both sides of that equation—how valuable the data is, and how it can be used to help patients and doctors improve outcomes, as well as how we can feed that information into global research.”

IBM Watson Health's Paul Roma (Ciox)

But what convinced Roma to make the jump over to Big Blue was its capacity for effecting change on a large scale. He cited the company’s work on the Apollo moon landing as an example, which celebrated the 50th anniversary this past week. Solving mission-critical problems within the nation’s healthcare system—and realizing the promises of AI and medical technology—may require a no-less-gargantuan effort.

“It is clear to me that the challenges in front of us require an integrated platform,” he said. “You have to have a deep bench, not just in technology experience, but also in the ability to productize it and bring it to the market at scale.”

That immensity, an IBM hallmark, will continue to be a differentiating factor for Watson Health, even as it’s surrounded by more and more smaller companies at the place where AI and healthcare intersect.

“Most of those players are focusing on very narrow aspects of the value chain, and they typically have one or two clients as they try to prove their case,” Roma said, comparing them to IBM’s thousands of clients and industry partnerships. “You can't replicate the trusted adviser relationships we have with clinical organizations, and you can't replicate the need and ability to scale for current and future offerings.”

But that doesn’t mean Watson can’t adapt as well. Following IBM’s $34 billion acquisition of open-source cloud software provider Red Hat, Roma said that spirit will run through the Watson Health unit: “We’re going to try to incorporate as much of that nimble approach as we can.”

Nevertheless, the Watson name went unmentioned in IBM’s latest earnings presentations for the second quarter. The company did point to revenue growth in its cognitive software division but said it was driven largely by its cybersecurity and cloud-based applications.

At the same time, Watson Health recently lost its vice president and manager for oncology, life sciences and personal health Lisa Rometty. At one time, Watson has angled to offer therapy advice for over a dozen different cancers after ingesting a patient’s medical records and consulting reams of medical literature online—but its early stages have been hampered by interoperability concerns and issues in translating disparate data sources into something it could use.

The cancer segment will remain a major focus for the division, however, Roma said. “We are looking at this point to extend the leadership in that business, and expect some changes to come to the market very soon,” he added.

Additionally, Roma believes Watson still has a place to excel within the doctor-patient interaction by intelligently distilling and presenting the complex pieces of information that physicians have to quickly digest before each appointment. This could help improve outcomes by catching mistakes like medication errors, he said.

“It is my belief that we're at a point in time, both in technology and medicine, where the technology needs to do better at helping doctors and patients interpret all this information at the right time, and give them a better way to approach their healthcare.”