Demand for online doctors creates $39 billion titan in Japan

Demand for online doctors creates $39 billion titan in Japan

Two decades ago, Itaru Tanimura ended a 12-year run at McKinsey & Co. to lead M3 Inc., an online provider of medical information and services backed by entertainment giant Sony Corp.

What followed was a flurry of acquisitions that turned the Tokyo-based company into a $39 billion global behemoth. M3 now has about 40 subsidiaries and affiliates, including MDLinx Inc. in the U.S. and Britain’s Ltd.

M3 helps pharmaceutical companies, doctors and their patients access information online over its platforms, removing the need for in-person visits — something that proved important in the time of COVID-19. Its shares have almost doubled this year, surging the most of any company in the 225-issue Nikkei average and taking the fortune of Tanimura to $1.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

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“Online doctor capabilities are in the spotlight with COVID, as people are staying home,” Jefferies Japan Ltd. analyst Hiroko Sato said in an interview. “It’s really a theme stock.”

The shares climbed 1.2 percent by 9:44 a.m. in Tokyo on Monday.

A rush by smaller pharma companies to digitalize marketing materials after the coronavirus outbreak helped boost sales, with inquiries skyrocketing. M3’s operating profit climbed 26 percent in the quarter ended in June, beating the highest analyst estimate.

The company’s name stands for “the three Ms of Medicine, Media and Metamorphosis,” and its goal is to change medicine by “making full use of the power of the Internet,” according to its website.

Its acquisition spree started in 2002, when M3 bought the Japanese unit of U.S. medical portal site WebMD. MDLinx was acquired in 2006 and in 2011. M3, which gets about three-quarters of its revenue from Japan, also has units in China, India and France. One of its U.S. subsidiaries was selected to take part in Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine study.

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Tanimura, 55, is president and holds a 2.9 percent stake in M3. Sony owns about a third of the company. M3 declined to comment for this story, while Sony didn’t respond to phone calls and an email seeking comment.

The pandemic has produced vast wealth gains among both tech and pharma titans. Inc.’s Jeff Bezos has amassed more than anyone else, with his fortune hitting $200 billion, while Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Pony Ma and Jiang Rensheng, the chairman of vaccine-maker Chongqing Zhifei Biological Products Co., have added more than $11 billion each.

While M3 said in its earnings report that COVID-19 disrupted some of its business, it always has Sony to lean on. The entertainment giant unveiled a $100 million relief fund to help tackle the outbreak in April and funneled some of that cash toward M3.

“Sony and M3 will be able to bring unprecedented ideas to the medical community,” Tanimura said at the time. “Our first priority will be the rapid development of contributive measures to the fight against COVID-19.”

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