Partner Collaboration Is the Core of Digital Health Innovation

GE Healthcare

Male doctor and woman patient shaking hands. Partnership in medicine, trust and medical ethics concept.

Frank Desiere adheres to a simple principle when negotiating partnerships between his firm and strategic collaborators.

“It is always important to me to create a win-win partnership,” said Desiere, PhD, MBA, head of digital health solutions at Roche Diagnostics CPS.

For a partnership to work, the long-term interests of both parties need to match, he said. Competencies must be compatible, and investments and returns must be balanced.

Collaboration has always been important in the healthcare industry, but in the era of digital health, Desiere said collaboration has become even more important, and even more complex.

For example, a medical device might be powered by state-of-the-art technology, and deliver precise readings; however, in the age of digital health, those readings must also be seamlessly integrated into a patient’s electronic health record, so that they can be instantly accessed by the patient’s providers. Moreover, patients increasingly expect to have real-time access to their own data, preferably on an easy-to-use, secure smartphone application.

In short, as the range of key competencies required for successful digital health innovation is ever-growing, so too, is the need for smart collaboration.

Improving Patient Experience

One of the most important reasons collaboration matters in digital health is the growing focus on patient empowerment. For patients to be empowered, they need a user experience that matches their expectations. Healthcare companies have traditionally lagged in this area, Desiere said.

“There is a large disparity between patient experience in healthcare, and for example, the consumer experience in other industries such as retail, technology, banking, and so on,” he said. “And that leads to a lot of frustration among patients.”

Patients increasingly want convenience, transparency, and control over their own healthcare information.

“And this is where new entrants like the tech giants--the digital disruptors--come in,” he said. “And they’re forcing incumbent players to take new roads and establish non-traditional partnerships across the ecosystem.”

Shifting Models of Collaboration

If user experience and patient expectations are key reasons collaboration is important, the complexity of such alliances comes in part from evolving models of partnership. Desiere, who has decades of experience crafting partnerships in his role at Roche, said the digital health era calls for new models of collaboration. In addition to direct two-party partnerships, joint ventures, and alliances backed by equity investment, many digital partnerships are built on what he calls the “ecosystem” model.

“In the digital era, things are more complex,” he said. “It is actually possible to combine services into one solution that originally originated from different parties.”

Key strategic partners might leverage back-end microservices, a platform provider, and a cloud services provider, among others, in order to facilitate a successful end product. Such complex collaborations are the backbone of many successful digital health partnerships, though the ecosystem powering the solution is frequently hiding in plain sight.

“It may just look like a solution,” Desiere said, “but on the back end, there is an ecosystem or a multitude of partners that contribute to a solution.”

Combining Core Competencies

Desiere said whether partnering with a large established firm, like Roche’s longtime partner Hitachi,1 a new partnership such as with GE Healthcare, or a small Silicon Valley startup, a key component of success is understanding what core competencies each partner brings to the collaboration.

“If you think about all these different key success factors, it becomes clear that very seldom do they lie in the hands of one organization,” he said.

One partner might have a strong technological platform but no expertise on the regulatory side. Another partner might have access to a desired consumer or patient population, but might need to partner with a company that has expertise in clinical validation.

“This is where partnerships come into play and where different capabilities can join forces to make a successful, sustainable solution,” Desiere said.

In the ecosystem model, it takes a mix of strategic partners and suppliers. The difference between the two is their centrality to the end solution and the long-term vision underpinning the partnership. A supplier is interchangeable. A strategic partner is not.

“In a strategic partnership, there’s long-term value creation that cannot be exchanged,” Desiere said. “There are capabilities that cannot be replaced.”

Innovation Out in the Open

Another force transforming partnerships in the era of digital health is the idea of open innovation.

“There are partnerships that are more pre-competitive,” Desiere said. “For example, to foster innovation.”

Roche, for instance, has launched the startup accelerator Startup Creasphere that brings corporate partners together with startups to help spark innovation in the healthcare industry.2

“The idea is to leverage the skills from the partners with the agility and innovation from the startups,” he said. “And this can be seen really as an innovation platform, where then, as a follow-up, projects can be integrated into the corporate partners where we see fit, to create value. But the overall goal is to also drive and foster digital health innovation in the ecosystem at large.”

Desiere added that the drive for better solutions for patients has also led to a move for more public-private partnerships, as governmental agencies such as the European Union have sought corporate and academic partners to help develop solutions for problems such as precision medicine, patient empowerment, and value-based care.3

Culture is Key

Even aside from public-private partnerships, governments play a key role in digital health innovation through their regulatory role. Healthcare firms must adhere to a web of safety and privacy regulations, and technology firms must comply with data regulations. In such a landscape, good governance of partnerships is critical.

And there’s one more thing that’s critically important, Desiere said.

“Interestingly, but importantly, the company cultures must be compatible,” he said.

Desiere explained that one part of cultural compatibility is having similar long-term orientations, with similar views on what constitutes success. However, he said compatibility also includes the way a company carries out its day-to-day business. Do the employees of both companies have corporate cultures that value treating others with integrity? Do both companies have the expectation that when someone makes a promise, they will deliver on that promise by the stated deadline?

“If there are different perspectives on these kinds of behavioral items, it gets very difficult to survive in these relationships over time,” he said. “If there is similar behavior, then this is a good foundation for success.”

Though he said healthcare firms need to be thoughtful when choosing partners, Desiere said developing partnerships really isn’t a choice in the digital health age, it’s a necessity.

“The players are emerging from all areas, and they are bringing their capabilities into health care,” he said. “And as they don't have all the required capabilities to be successful in the long term, everybody needs to build partnerships.”


  1. Roche and Hitachi celebrate 35 years of innovation. Accessed July 22, 2020.
  2. Play Pand. Plug and Play launches the first health-focused innovation program in Munich - "Startup Creasphere". PR Newswire: news distribution, targeting and monitoring. Published September 20, 2018. Accessed July 20, 2020.
  3. The EU's future public-private partnership for health marks a new era for medtech innovation. Medtech Views. Published May 25, 2020. Accessed July 22, 2020.