Microsoft’s head of healthcare thought it was a ‘career-ending move’ when Satya Nadella offered him the job. Here’s why he says he’s now completely sucked in.

Microsoft Healthcare corporate vice president Peter Lee Microsoft
  • Peter Lee, the corporate vice president of Microsoft Healthcare, thought at first that taking on the tech giant’s healthcare strategy would be a “career-ending move.”
  • But over the past few years, he’s come around to it and sees companies like Microsoft playing a big role in healthcare.
  • “For me, it’s fundamentally a question of what right do we have as a company like Microsoft to be participating in healthcare,” Lee said.

DAVOS, Switzerland – When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella asked Peter Lee to rethink the company’s healthcare strategy two and half years ago, Lee was dubious.

“Honestly, I thought he was asking me to make a career-ending move,” Lee, the corporate vice president of Microsoft Healthcare, told Business Insider’s executive editor Matt Turner at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Under Nadella, the pressure was on to get it right. And that wouldn’t be an easy task. Tech companies like Microsoft have historically had trouble cracking into the healthcare business.

For instance, Google built Google Health, a personal health information service, but the project was shut down in 2011.Microsoft built its version called HealthVault, but it also ultimately didn’t work.

“Let’s face it. The tech industry is littered with attempts by shiny CEOs to go after a piece of this massive healthcare pie,” Lee said. “I think pretty consistently the tech industry has gone into it with a lot of naïveté, even some arrogance. So my knee-jerk assumption was ‘Here we go again.'”

Read more:
The hospital in Amazon’s backyard has a plan to disrupt itself before being disrupted by big tech companies

To avoid those past missteps, Lee and his team had to think hard about the role Microsoft could play in healthcare.

“For me, it’s fundamentally a question of what right do we have as a company like Microsoft to be participating in healthcare,” Lee said.

Put another way, Lee said, it boils down to this: If Microsoft were to disappear tomorrow, in what ways would the healthcare industry be harmed? “It took some time of getting over the emotional reactions of looking into healthcare, and then assembling the team to look into that question,” Lee said.

Now, he and the team have been completely sucked into healthcare.

“We really see not only being excited about it from a business and technology perspective, but also seeing that we have a crucial mission to play in healthcare,” Lee said.

A lot of health data already takes up a lot of storage space. For instance, to store just one human genome, it requires up to 200 gigabytes.

Your entire genome is filled with a whole lot of information, including a lot we’re not entirely sure how to interpret just yet. Most genetics tests out there that tell you information about your traits or ancestry are mainly focused on gathering up single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs for short) that are specific mutations that have been linked to particular traits or conditions.

So for now, only a small number of people are getting their whole genomes sequenced. But that’s going to start growing as we decode more useful information from our genes. And there’ll be a need for companies like Microsoft to store that data.

“We know that’s going to spread,” Lee said. “When that spreads, the kind of hyperscale computing infrastructure that Microsoft and a small number of other companies have will really be crucial to making that work.”