In a move that is becoming increasingly common for international technology giants, Sony will make a startling new push into an area of research that doesn’t seem to overlap at all with its current projects. Diversification is the corporate buzzword of the day, a frantic attempt to spread out a company’s weight as it tries to keep from falling through ever-thinning economic ice. The internet is threatening established media, display technology is advancing down all sorts of new paths, and the cloud is even bringing the necessity of physical processing hardware into question; even a company as diverse as Sony must look at its frankly incredible array of products and wonder whether it might still be just a few Kickstarter success stories away from total irrelevance.
That being the case, the company has decided to enter into a partnership with Japanese medical giant M3 and genetics pioneer Illumina to create a new company named P5. Though details are scarce right now, the new company will focus on creating a “genetic information platform,” which we can safely assume means a proprietary stab at making salable products out of the promise of personalized medicine. Almost certainly the first planned device is a cheap genetic sequencing and annotation tool meant for quick identification of genetic problems or warning signs.
The short-term target of the company is the research and testing industry, but sales direct to the public are an openly stated goal, as well. The biomedical industry is already one of the largest economic sectors there is, and that’s while working entirely through third parties (insurance companies and medical professionals). If technology could allow companies like Sony to safely cut out such inherent inefficiencies, the market could explode even further.
This differs from Google’s announcement of Calico in a few key ways. First, Sony has a robust history as a hardware company, while Google still primarily makes software. Second, Sony’s goals seem much less lofty than Google’s; all modern hospitals already house equipment with at least a few recognizable electronics logos, and Sony just wants a (bigger) piece of that action. That genetic analysis will undoubtedly have the effect of lengthening lifespans doesn’t mean the two projects have the same goal. Sony wants to fill a very specific niche, and has a direct plan to recoup expenses; Google seems to have a much more general understanding of the relationship between health and profit, and trusts that a more wide-based approach will work out in the end.
In late 2012, Sony announced a general plan to enter the health industry with the explicit aim of cornering an emerging market. They see medicine as a new frontier in technology that could work its way into the average home. Could they sell you a hardware-software health kit that tracks and advises on health the way a financial suite might do for your budget? Could they sell you a testing platform at a loss, then recoup that loss through monthly health monitoring fees? Will you have to pay for version upgrades capable of testing more accurately, or for a wider array of problems?
This sort of research need not confine itself to hypotheticals, however. The $664 million purchase of camera-maker Olympus was reportedly to gain control of its medical endoscope business, but the research necessary to improve those devices could also drive the development of Sony’s 4K TVs. There are multiple possible applications for virtually every sort of research, and there are few if any companies better positioned to take advantage of the full spectrum of applications for a new technology. With many of Sony’s traditional businesses struggling in recent years, last year saw the company take in a majority of its profit from the financial services branch – this is a company that knows full well the importance of embracing new and seemingly uncharacteristic ideas.
Genome analysis is one of the fastest-emerging fields in the world, recently passing the $1,000 milestone and continuing to advance with no sign of slowing. Quite literally, the $100 genome might not be far away — and any company not poised to exploit that market the instant it appears could easily find itself frozen out for good. Sony and Google have big plans to make sure that doesn’t happen. All that remains to be seen is who else will throw their hat into the ring.