Amazon has started a secret skunkworks lab dedicated to opportunities in health care, including new areas such as electronic medical records and telemedicine. Amazon has dubbed this stealth team 1492, which appears to be a reference to the year Columbus first landed in the Americas.
The stealth team, which is headquartered in Seattle, is focused on both hardware and software projects, according to two people familiar. Amazon has become increasingly interested in exploring new business in healthcare. For example, Amazon has another unit exploring selling pharmaceuticals, CNBC reported in May.
The new team is currently looking at opportunities that involve pushing and pulling data from legacy electronic medical record systems. If successful, Amazon could make that information available to consumers and their doctors. It is also hoping to build a platform for telemedicine, which in turn could make it easier for people to have virtual consultations with doctors, one of the people said.
The group is also exploring health applications for existing Amazon hardware, including Echo and Dash Wand. Hospitals and doctor's offices have already dabbled in developing skills for Amazon's voice assistant Alexa, which presents a big opportunity for the e-commerce company.
It's not clear whether Amazon is building any new health devices, but sources didn't rule it out.
When this article was originally published, on July 26, Amazon was advertising a slew of roles for its "stealth" operation, which were searchable on the jobs site under the keyword "a1.492." Some job posts described the position as "The Amazon Grand Challenge a.k.a. 'Special Projects' team." The unit also had ads posted for a UX Design Manager for its "new vertical," as well as a machine learning director with experience in healthcare IT and analytics and a knowledge of electronic medical records.
Some members of the team listed their affiliation with a1.492 on LinkedIn. Those involved include two machine learning experts; a UX designer; and two strategic initiative leads that are running projects inside the group, Kristen Helton and Cameron Charles.
As of July 27, all references to a1.492 had been removed from Amazon's jobs site and from these LinkedIn profiles. Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
1492 isn't the only team inside Amazon that is working in health and life sciences.
Its cloud operation, Amazon Web Services, has also hired a slew of health experts to beat out Microsoft and Google for contracts with large hospitals and pharmaceutical vendors. The company has also invested in a health startup called Grail as a very special kind of future customer for its cloud business.
Its Amazon business team is also grabbing opportunities in the $3 trillion sector. It has been selling medical supplies for several years, which poses a big threat to the U.S. distribution business, and is looking to build out a pharmacy business.
The company is attempting to better coordinate these efforts through a series of meetings with senior leaders across these groups that kicked off this year, according to one of the people.
The market opportunity is enormous: Former White House CTO Aneesh Chopra, who has been highly involved in efforts to digitize health operations but had no prior knowledge of the Amazon effort, told CNBC "anyone who aspires to help consumers navigate our health system and is digitally capable should find the market conditions ripe for entry."
Apple's health unit is also working with partners in the industry to aggregate medical information, CNBC previously reported. Google and Microsoft have stumbled in similar efforts, known as Google Health and HealthVault.