Amazon’s Grand Challenge team, its equivalent of the Google X lab for moonshot technologies, has made its latest high-profile health care hire.
The company has quietly scooped up Taha Kass-Hout, the former U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief health informatics officer, according to a source with knowledge of the hire.
Kass-Hout will serve in a business development role focusing on health care projects. He will work alongside Amazon Grand Challenge chief Babak Parviz, a former director at Google X who joined Amazon in 2014 as a vice president.
Amazon has remained secretive about its health care ambitions, with a few exceptions.
It did announce a collaboration with J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway to bring down health care costs and improve quality for its own employees. But it hasn’t said much about how that will work, or who will run it.
Amazon’s Grand Challenge team has also been referred to internally as 1492. Like Google X, it is focused on very big bets that would potentially create a new category for the business. The multi-trillion dollar health sector is a major focus for the group.
Amazon did not immediately return a request for comment.
Kass-Hout left his previous role at Michigan’s Trinity Health in May of last year, and hasn’t updated his LinkedIn profile since then.
At Trinity, where he served as a senior vice president, his role involved “leadership and oversight over data, analytics and digital health initiatives,” according to his profile.
Prior than that, he worked in senior government roles at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA as its first executive focused on health informatics. He’s also a Harvard-trained physician.
His expertise is in health information technologies and digital health, as well as in navigating government regulation.
Most interestingly, he describes his mission on LinkedIn as “empowering consumers via sustainable health data ecosystems.”
That suggests Amazon might be looking to help consumers get easier access to health records. Both Apple and Alphabet have launched initiatives to help consumers gain access to their medical information, which is currently scattered across various health systems.
It’s a big problem — and a big opportunity for technology companies. More than 250,000 people die every year from medical errors, often resulting from a lack of available patient-data on hospital computer systems. Amazon hasn’t revealed its own ambitions in this space, but CNBC reported that it’s looking at opportunities to push and pull data from legacy electronic medical systems.
Medical experts say that it’s also possible that Kass-Hout will help Amazon through various facets of the regulatory process, especially if it brings new health hardware or software to market.
“It’s not clear either way, but it does at least give them the option,” said Stephen Buck, a former co-founder of GoodRx, which gives consumers a platform for cheaper medicines. Buck did not have any inside knowledge of the hire.
“It’s smart of Amazon to bring in people well versed in health care data and how connectivity is vital to improving results,” he added.
Amazon has various teams working internally on a wide variety different health projects, some of which may never reach production.
For instance, it has teams focused on bringing its Alexa voice assistant to health care, figuring out whether it can disrupt the drug supply chain, and selling medical supplies to hospitals. Amazon Web Services is working to serve its customers in the health care sector with cloud technology, and has a deal with Cerner to help better use their data to make health predictions about patient populations.
In addition to Kass-Hout, Amazon this year also scooped up Martin Levine, a prominent Seattle-based geriatrician with an expertise in innovative care delivery models.