Real breakthroughs

April 21, 2004

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comJoe Hogan says the newly formed GE Healthcare--the union between GE Medical Systems and Amersham Health--is dedicated to

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

Joe Hogan says the newly formed GE Healthcare--the union between GE Medical Systems and Amersham Health--is dedicated to breakthroughs. Not the kind of "breakthroughs" that happen every year or so when a high-end ultrasound function is ported to a low-tier machine. Nor does Hogan mean the sort of advances that result in more detector rows being added to a CT scanner, or the development of a more powerful data pipeline for MR.

These are derivatives of existing technologies. They are part of the iterative process that improves what we already have. They are important, yes--but not worthy of being called breakthroughs. At least not in the same breath as the true breakthroughs that Hogan has in mind.

Hogan, a key architect of the union between GE Medical Systems and Amersham, sees a time when diseases are prevented or managed before they affect the patient. He thinks GE can get there by combining imaging equipment capability and molecular medicine concepts into a rational approach that transforms our understanding of disease and the therapeutic process.

Listening to Hogan speak, it is hard not to get enthusiastic about this kind of future. And with the union of Amersham and GE, it seems possible. Best of all, this is not some government initiative that will be cut in a year or two with shifting political winds. This is drawn from the very fabric of capitalism itself. There's gold in them thar genes--and GE wants to get it out.

That's the good news. Now the bad. This initiative will take time to reach its goals. That shouldn't be a surprise. Physicians waited centuries for anesthetics that made surgery more of an art form and less a race against time. The same is true for those who drained patients' blood before germ theory explained the roots of infectious disease. Breakthroughs are supposed to come along only every so often.

The worry, of course, is that U.S. companies tend to have the attention span of a seven-year-old with attention deficit disorder. Positive results that fail to show up on the next quarterly report often prompt another look. GE is not like that. Well, at least not always. The company spent 10 years developing flat panels for digital x-ray. Now it has created a team of experts in molecular medicine at its Global R&D Center, spent billions to buy Amersham, and taken aim at a distant future.

Will GE executives have the perseverance to follow through on a goal that may be decades away? If they do, that itself will be a breakthrough--for corporate America.