Jan 5, 2022 - Health

Scoop: IBM tries to sell Watson Health again

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

IBM has resurrected its sale process for IBM Watson Health, with hopes of fetching more than $1 billion, people familiar with the situation tell Axios.

Why it matters: Big Blue wants out of health care, after spending billions to stake its claim, just as rival Oracle is moving big into the sector via its $28 billion bet for Cerner.

  • IBM spent more than $4 billion to build Watson Health via a series of acquisitions. The business now includes health care data and analytics business Truven Health Analytics, population health company Phytel, and medical imaging business Merge Healthcare.

Flashback: IBM first explored a sale of the division in early 2021, with Morgan Stanley leading the process.

  • WSJ reported at the time that the unit was generating roughly $1 billion in annual revenue, but was unprofitable. Sources say it continues to lose money.

Fast forward: IBM in late 2021 engaged BofA Securities to find a buyer for Watson Health.

  • Bids were due yesterday, according to one source who says IBM hopes to select the winner by month's end.
  • One strategic buyer and several private equity firms are said to be in the mix.

The other side: IBM and BofA declined to comment, but in a discussion with Ina Fried last year for "Axios on HBO," IBM CEO Arvind Krishna acknowledged the perception that sometimes the company has promised more than it has delivered:

  • “Health care always is going to turn out to be more subtle, as well as more regulated for the right reasons, than it is in other areas,” Krishna said. “And to me, that's natural. It is a decision that may impact somebody's life or death. You got to be more careful. So in health care, it turns out maybe we were too optimistic.”

The bottom line: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A potential buyer of IBM Watson Health will have to figure out how to make it profitable, which could mean private equity buys it and tears it to pieces.

Sarah Pringle will co-author our upcoming Axios Pro newsletter on health tech deals. Join the waitlist.

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