Sony: A Surprising New Competitor in Health Care

Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) isn't a company most investors normally associate with the health care industry. The Japanese conglomerate is certainly well-known for consumer electronics, but it also has a surprising strategy to expand into health care. Let's take a look at some surprising strategies that could eventually make Sony a major player in medical devices and personalized medicine.

A growing player in the medical device market
Sony quietly entered the health care market in 2010 through several key acquisitions and partnerships.

In February 2010, Sony acquired iCyt Mission Technology, a producer of flow cytometers, which are used to sort cells, detect biomarkers, and engineer proteins. Sony's Digital Audio Disc Corporation (DADC) then collaborated with at least three life science companies -- RainDance, Quanterix, and Caliper -- to invest in microfluidics, a liquid-handling technology used in DNA chips and lab-on-a-chips. In 2011, it acquired Micronics, a developer of point-of-care diagnostic technologies, which holds a large number of microfluidics patents.

A biochip (lab-on-a-chip), a common application for microfluidics technology. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

None of those acquisitions made much sense until September 2012, when Sony took an 11% stake in Olympus (NASDAQOTH: OCPNY  ) for its medical imaging technologies. At the time of the investment, Olympus held a 70% global market share in endoscopes, which are used to peer inside the human body during medical procedures. The joint venture, known as Sony Olympus Medical Solutions, formally started in April 2013.

The battle between Sony and Samsung shifts to medical imaging devices
Sony Olympus Medical Solutions is developing medical imaging devices using Sony's 4K technology to capture moving images four times sharper than traditional HD video from within the body. Sony set a firm goal for its medical business: annual sales of 200 billion yen, or about $1.9 billion, by the end of fiscal 2020.

The fledgling medical business will grow within Sony's Imaging Solutions and Products business -- which generated 730.4 billion yen (approximately $7.1 billion) in fiscal 2013 -- and eventually evolve into a new core business segment. Sony's Imaging business, which consists of its cameras and image sensors, accounted for 10.7% of its top line in 2013.

Sony's sudden interest in medical devices runs parallel to tech giant Samsung's (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF  ) recent investments in the industry. Between 2010 and 2013, Samsung acquired Medison (ultrasonic medical devices), Nexus (cardiovascular test kits), and NeuroLogica (medical imaging). It combined all of those technologies and launched GEO, its own line of digital radiology and in-vitro diagnostic equipment, last March. Samsung is more ambitious than Sony -- it claims it will be one of the world's largest medical equipment companies by 2020, generating $10 billion in annual revenue from its medical device business alone.

To put Sony and Samsung's 2020 medical sales targets in perspective, GE's health care segment, one of the largest medical device companies in the world, generated $18.2 billion in revenue in fiscal 2013.

Why did Sony need all of that microfluidics tech?
However, imaging devices are only part of Sony's plan for expanding its medical business. In January, Sony signed a partnership with life sciences giant Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN  ) and Japanese medical portal M3 to launch a genome information platform in Japan.

The platform, known as P5, will be a genome analysis service for medical and research institutions across Japan, with a long-term goal of creating personalized medicine and health care services. All of the microfluidics technologies Sony has been acquiring over the past few years, which can be used for a wide variety of diagnostic purposes, now come into play. On April 1, Sony DADC announced another microfluidics deal with Trinean to produce microfluidic disposables, which are used to store and analyze droplet-sized biological samples.

Illumina recently broke the "human genome sound barrier" by launching a system that could sequence the entire human genome for $1,000 -- a steep drop from the cost of $250,000 a decade earlier. Sony and M3 will establish the company, and Illumina will act as a minority investor.

When we put all these pieces together -- the high-end imaging devices, the genome tests, the medical portal system, and Illumina's involvement -- we get a much more ambitious health care project than Samsung's GEO.

The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, Sony's new ventures into health care are exciting, but they aren't big enough yet to offset the importance of its game, mobile, and home entertainment businesses -- which together accounted for 54% of its top line last quarter. However, Sony is clearly serious about evolving into a major contender in the medical devices and diagnostics market, and these new products and services should be closely watched.

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Leo Sun

Leo has covered the crossroads of Wall Street and Silicon Valley since 2012. Follow him on Twitter for more updates!

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