Microsoft’s ‘big bet factory’ has a new mission: hacking human health

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Microsoft Research CVP Dr. Peter Lee
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Microsoft

In late 2014, Microsoft formed Microsoft Research NExT – a division of hundreds of scientists with a mandate to take Microsoft’s formidable array of science fictional technology and bring it to real commercial products.

That initiative has resulted in a wide range of cool, interesting, and downright wild stuff, from some of the underlying technology in the Microsoft HoloLens holographic headset, to the rogue Twitter chatbot Tay, to an ambitious plan to build underwater data centers.

Now, Microsoft Research NExT boss Dr. Peter Lee says that his “big bet factory” has its sights set on a new problem: Human health.

And to do it, Lee is forming a new unit, Healthcare NExT, to take Microsoft’s most advanced technology and apply it to improving patient care, advancing medical research, and providing new tools to doctors.

The model

As Lee tells it, a big factor in NExT’s success is its entrepreneurial approach to new technologies.

Projects at NExT get approved in the same way that a Silicon Valley startup might find funding: They have to pass muster with a board of executives in a session that functions like an investor pitch meeting, demonstrating how their project will use Microsoft’s technology to make a tangible impact on the world.

Just as importantly, NExT is all about partnerships that can make the ideas a reality, Lee says. He gives the example of Project Catapult, a project to add artificial intelligence technology to data center networking equipment.

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Startup RingMD uses some Microsoft technology to enable video house calls with doctors from your phone, tablet, or computer.
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Microsoft

Microsoft and a company called Altera did the research, Altera manufactured and sold the resulting hardware to Microsoft and other customers. It was “win/win for the partner and for Microsoft,” Lee says. And while the specific example of Project Catapult predates NExT, it became a template for how Lee’s unit does business.

Now, Lee says, the question is: “How do we do this in healthcare?” It’s a challenge, he says, but also an “intoxicating idea,” with the potential for outsized returns.

‘Relevant moonshots’

In the short term, Healthcare NExT is looking for pragmatic opportunities to make a difference, Lee says.

As part of this announcement, for instance, Microsoft is announcing a new set of tools for doctors to consult with patients via Skype, which is being used by companies like RingMD for video house calls.

Another piece of it is a research partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to develop paperwork-reducing software tools. And Microsoft is partnering up with companies to make some of its more cutting-edge artificial intelligence tech available to further fields like genome sequencing.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
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AP

Taking a longer view, though, Lee says that “there will always be a place at NExT for what [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella calls ‘relevant moonshots'” – big, bold ideas that take Microsoft technologies and invest them in projects that might take a long time to bear fruit.

For instance, he says, Microsoft Research NExT has started to investigate the “very striking similarities” between the problems of identifying cancer cells, and the process of scanning huge software projects for bugs. It might not be soon, but Microsoft’s expertise in debugging to oncological problems could one day save lives.

The possibilities are many, Lee says, and provide a new way for Microsoft’s research to be put to good use.

“We’re just having a great time,” Lee says.