Fall is a time for branching out and embracing diversity. Companies large, medium and small are looking for new bounties outside of their normal bread and butter. Google and Microsoft are entering the more than $3 trillion healthcare market; a branch of BMW is taking a stab at shoes; according to research from Accenture, the majority of top executives say that their companies will be branching out beyond their industry within 5 years.
There are a number of reasons motivating these companies, but perhaps there are just as many reasons that should be discouraging them. For those who don’t remember: at one time, Cosmopolitan Magazine tried to sell yogurt and Colgate tried to sell frozen meals. How many marketing MBAs does it take to realize that nobody wants to think about toothpaste when they’re eating?
Ok, ok, ok. There are successes and there are failures, but let’s give these companies the benefit of the doubt. Microsoft, a former monopoly that has successfully transitioned once before with the Xbox, is now looking at healthcare.
Microsoft Uses Machine Learning to Cure Cancer
Within 10 years, Microsoft thinks it could be treating cancer just like a computer virus. They plan to use a process called “biological computation” to monitor viruses and even reprogram them to be healthy again.
The idea is to map everything that goes on inside the cell, let the computer determine abnormalities, and point out possible areas for treatment. This could be combined with the incredibly effective gene-altering method, CRISPR (do yourself a favor and read about that here). In short, Microsoft wants to be the first in the door when we start designing genes and hacking our basic building blocks. Eventually, they hope this will go beyond disease prevention and help us slow the aging process itself. They’re not alone.
Google and Parent Company Alphabet Venture Into Aging, Healthcare, and “Implantables?”
Google Glass is getting resurrected for doctors. It’s a way to keep relevant information at eye level while seeing multiple patients a day. They’ve also patented a visual correction implant and developed a smart contact lens that ended up branching off itself to become Verily, a separate Alphabet company. The lenses can detect glucose levels in the eye and give the wearer real-time feedback.
But perhaps the most exciting development is their work on aging. Google developed Calico in 2013 to solve the riddle of human decay. According to Calico’s website:
Executing on this mission will require an unprecedented level of interdisciplinary effort and a long-term focus for which funding is already in place.
“Interdisciplinary effort” is nothing new for Google, which seems to invest in 100s of unrelated projects every year—from search engines and email services that usually work to self-driving cars that sometimes don’t. It’s the “black swan” method of business, referring to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s account of how 100s of tiny investments can identify unlikely and unpredictable successes, or “black swans.”
Some companies aren’t willing to stretch their attentions and resources that thin though. For them, picking the right pivot is crucial.
BMW Walks a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes
BMW’s group company, Designworks collaborated with Puma to create a number of vehicle-inspired shoe designs. The most notable design is made with stretchable fabric. It’s the same material used in one of BMW’s concept cars, the GINA, which shape-shifts to account for exterior conditions and changes in speed. With the shoe, the same element-resistant fabric wraps around your feet without any need for laces. You simply use a dial on the front to adjust tightness. They’re currently being sold by Puma for $135.
Try Something New or Stick to What you Know?
There are plenty of good reasons for companies to expand their horizons. Digital markets are replacing industries, forcing everyone to play catch-up. Disruptive technologies like new payment techniques or delivery services also force companies to collaborate with other industries. It’s only natural for these collaborations to eventually grow into their own profit streams.
Unless they don’t. Like when Michael Jordan tried playing baseball; or Ludacris picked up “acting”; or CM Punk went from being a professional wrestler to getting beaten up in the UFC. Not great. But who can hate them for trying? When you have that much money, it’s hard to sit still. Let’s hope, especially in the healthcare endeavors, it’s just as hard to screw up.
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