Powering Up the Watson Ecosystem

Manoj Saxena, Managing Director, TEF
Manoj Saxena, Managing Director, TEF

By Manoj Saxena

I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I love to shepherd businesses from concept to reality. Earlier in my career, I launched, built and sold two technology companies.

One of those companies was purchased by IBM, which launched the next phase of my career, when I became an intrepreneur. At IBM I was tapped to lead the team charged with turning Watson from a Jeopardy-playing experiment into a set of technology solutions capable of transforming industries. During our short three-year effort, we’ve applied Watson to a variety of industry challenges, from health care to financial services and retail, and demonstrated the power of the new era of computing where cognitive systems think, improve by learning, and discover insights in massive amounts of data.

This startup within IBM took a major step forward in January, when IBM announced the creation of the IBM Watson Group, with a $1 billion investment, 2000 employees and its own headquarters in the heart of New York City’s Silicon Alley.

Now I’m ready for my next challenge —as an extrepreneur. I will be a managing director  at the venture capital firm The Entrepreneur’s Fund (TEF) and will serve as an advisor to Michael Rhodin, the IBM senior vice president who is leading the IBM Watson Group.  I see this as a chance to participate fully in the next phase of cognitive computing innovations.

I will be dedicating my time to seeding startups that will apply cognitive computing innovations, along with cloud and B2B technologies. This new role is a natural extension of the work I have been doing to create and expand a Watson ecosystem—championing entrepreneurs who are building a new class of cognitive apps powered by IBM’s Watson cloud platform.

I’ve often said that Watson, and other cognitive technologies that will follow, are the ‘desalination’ technique   to unlocking an endless ocean of jumbled facts and numbers from Big Data into actionable insights. They have the potential to transform the IT industry and business the way the mainframe computer did 50 years ago.

For me, Watson has, and will continue to be, a personal quest as well as a professional avocation. My mother, who was a physician in her native India, was stricken with Alzheimer’s in recent years.  At IBM, our first target for the Watson business was healthcare. We saw how Watson could help physicians understand their patients’ problems better and improve the personalization of treatments for them. I look at my mother and think of all of the people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and their families. I believe Watson can help solve the mysteries of this terrible disease and, ultimately, prevent or cure it.

We have already seen amazing progress of how Watson can be applied in health care, transforming how medicine is practiced, paid for and taught, through partnerships with organizations such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, WellPoint, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University.

I foresee a nearly infinite array of ways cognitive technologies will help us in the future. They’ll transform organizations and industries—from healthcare and banking to transportation and retail services. And they’ll help individuals become more successful in their professional and private lives.

I’m excited about the future advances in cognitive computing coming from IBM, which will spur opportunities for a broad ecosystem — from start-ups to venture capitalists and large companies — that share a vision for creating a new class of cognitive apps that will transform how businesses and consumers make decisions.

There’s no shortage of ideas and interest in joining this community.  Within months of IBM announcing its Watson Developer Cloud, more than 1,300 companies contacted IBM about participating in this innovation ecosystem.

I’m looking forward to working in partnership with my friends at IBM to work with these brilliant entrepreneurs and help their ideas succeed in the market.

In addition to my efforts, IBM’s Watson Group has set aside a fund of $100 million to back startups. My fund along with IBM made our first investments in Welltok, a Denver-based healthcare management company. It’s embedding Watson in its online service, CaféWell, which connects healthcare consumers with their care providers, employers and insurance companies—empowering people to take charge of their own well-being.

As an entrepreneur, I learned through experience what it takes to make something out of nothing. As an intrepreneur, I helped grow something with incredible societal impact within IBM. Now, as an extrepreneur, I’m helping to light up an entire innovation ecosystem. Through a combination of investments, mentorship and strategic alliances I hope to help cognitive computing fulfill its potential to make the world work better.

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