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Is Health Care Google's Next Big Business After Search? This Investment Bank Thinks So.

In a research report, Cowen and Company say investors aren't bullish enough on Google's medical bets.


Health is a big deal for Google. Two of its Alphabet companies are devoted to it. One of them, Life Sciences, recently named diabetes as its inaugural area of focus with other widespread diseases to come. Google’s co-founders (and Alphabet chiefs) are obsessed with massive, intractable medical problems.

Yet the company has given minimal disclosures on its nascent, multi-pronged initiatives in health care. Still, one investment bank believes Google’s efforts — which include inventions like its smart contact lens and miniature diabetes monitor, as well as its venture investments — could create its next multi-billion dollar business. In a sizable research note published last week, Cowen and Company wrote that Google’s moves “represent significant unlocked value” that will start becoming clearer as the company separates the finances of Google and Alphabet in the fourth quarter.

“A closer look at Google’s vast health care efforts,” the report says, “reveals that the company is targeting very large markets with an expansive list of projects that with even minor success could justify the company’s recent investments.”

Cowen cites three major trends in the sector that play to Google’s strengths: The digitization of health data; a shift toward paying for care based on value, rather than visits or tests; and genome sequencing. Google’s cloud computing expertise positions it well in the first trend while it has, through the two Alphabet companies, Calico and Life Sciences, begun inking business deals aimed at the other two. In August, Life Sciences signed a partnership with pharmaceutical company Dexcom to make high-tech products for diabetics, a total market Cowen pegs at $20 billion in potential.

Then there are Google’s investments. According to Cowen, Google Ventures currently backs 14 life sciences companies, including two — Flatiron Health and One Medical Group — with valuations over $1 billion. Another, Spruce Health, operates in telemedicine around dermatology, a market Cowen estimates at $5.7 billion.

However, the Cowen report doesn’t attach a headline number to the total basket. Nothing like Google will have a $XX billion healthcare business by 2017. In part, that’s because medical development moves at a glacial pace, with regulatory and research unpredictability. Also, Google isn’t helping.

“It’s just difficult to put numbers around it,” said John Blackledge, a Cowen analyst and report co-author. “It’s always tough with a $400 billion company.”

Cowen did estimate that in the fourth quarter, when Google breaks out its core business results from the Alphabet remainder for the first time, the company will report between $3 billion and $5 billion in research and development costs outside of Google Inc. A huge portion of that will likely go to health care.

Should the digital health and medical tech markets expand, as Cowen and others expect, there’s no guarantee Google-Alphabet will claim a lion’s share of profits. Other tech companies do cloud computing well, arguably better as businesses. And several, including Fitbit and Apple, look better poised to seize on any boom in wearable health products. Also, the success of Calico and Life Sciences will depend on ample pharmaceutical and biotech partners, an industry in the midst of a stock market bloodletting.

Per Cowen, however, Google doesn’t need to own health care as it does with search, but can clean up with some “minor success.”

“We might be early here,” Blackledge said. “Three years from now, if we’re having the same conversation, we may be able to measure it better.”

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