The health of IBM's Watson: Its future lies in startups

Tech companies, including IBM, see medical technology as important to the future health of populations - and their own.
Written by David Shamah, Contributor
The IBM Watson supercomputer.
Image: IBM
IBM's Watson is about as 'big data' as it gets. So far, Watson's biggest deployment has been in the area of medical care and administration, but the cognitive computing system is also making its presence felt in health through the startups that use it.

Dror Pearl is director of the IBM Alphazone Accelerator in Haifa, Israel - the company's only accelerator to date. "That could change, though," Pearl said. "We've been discussing the possibility of exporting the accelerator model we have developed here to other locations, developing an international chain of accelerators that will concentrate on developing applications for Watson, for the medical, enterprise, and industrial fields."

In that, IBM would be following a pattern set by Microsoft, which three years ago established its first accelerator in Herzliya in central Israel - and promptly exported the model to seven other locations around the world. Over the past three years, Microsoft accelerators have graduated 410 companies, of which 77 percent have raised follow-on funding of $3.3m, with 23 exits and one IPO.

Many of those startups are also working in the medical tech/big data area - further highlighting how important this segment is to big data corporations like IBM.

"Our medical tech companies are more developed - Microsoft concentrates on earlier stage startups," said IBM's Pearl.

Pearl was speaking at the second demo day for the Alphazone accelerator, in which companies who were members of the second group of startups to graduate from the 24-week program showed off their wares.

Instead of focusing on business development, as many accelerators do, Alphazone emphasizes tech, and puts a staff of dozens at the disposal of the companies as they develop effective ways to use Watson and other technologies. IBM does not retain any equity in accelerator companies, and there are no fees or requirements to sell the resulting tech to IBM; nor does the company take ownership of any of the intellectual property developed by program members. For IBM, it's enough to have the opportunity to work with the startups and to help them sell their products, said Pearl.

One example of the merging of big data, enterprise, and medical technology is Israeli startup VoiceItt, which is developing a platform that enables people with motor, speech, and language disorders to easily communicate using their own voice, by translating unintelligible pronunciation into understandable speech.

"All of the solutions out there to help people communicate are clunky and expensive, requiring elaborate equipment and expensive software that is difficult to maintain," said TalkItt CEO Danny Weissberg. "None of the solutions enable users to speak in their own voice, and that is what we were aiming for."

Using big data analytics, a user's speech is analyzed in the cloud by TalkItt's algorithms, and the words are sent back to the device for playback. "It's the speaker's real voice, 'cleaned up' from the interference that prevents them from being understood," said Weissberg. "In Alphazone, we will have access to Watson's advanced intelligent analytics which will make analyzing voices and words even more efficient, and IBM's powerful Bluemix cloud will give us the opportunity to expand our services."

While there is a clear business opportunity for the technology in the health sector - approximately 1.5 percent of the population of the western world has difficulty communicating due to issues such as stroke, autism, or birth defects - the technology could be used in many other scenarios, making communication clearer online, for example, or building a predictive database to expand automated communication systems that allow robots to communicate more intelligently. Verizon has already recognized the value of TalkItt's technology, awarding the company $250,000 in last year's Powerful Answers Award contest; TalkItt is also a finalist in this year's Innovation Contest by Deutsche Telekom.

And while there is plenty of value in the developments medical tech companies have seen emerging from Watson and the startups using the platform, the business case for medical tech as a huge enterprise play is even more straightforward, said Pearl.

"There is a tremendous market here, as there are too few people doing far too much to keep people healthy - and as the population continues to age, there will be an even greater gap between available personnel and the needs. You need new devices, new technologies to bridge that gap - there is no other alternative, and that's an important motivation for the emphasis on medical tech on Watson."

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