IBM’s Watson Group settles into new neighborhood, promises the world

New York Business Journal

Like so many others before, IBM Watson said enough of the suburbs and has moved to the city.

Big Blue will officially open its new Watson division headquarters in the East Village on Wednesday morning, marking a milestone in the company’s $1 billion effort to monetize its cognitive computing power and remake its image for a new era.

sandeepStrategically, there’s little new to say about Armonk-based IBM’s Watson Group, launched at the start of 2014 with a $100 million venture capital fund and another $900 million to build its technology and ecosystem. The company’s been dribbling out new applications and new features off and on all year, and volunteered a few more during a preview event Tuesday, such as expanding Watson into Spanish, French and Brazilian Portuguese, and “user modeling,” the ability to alter answers based on clues about a user’s personality. Also, the company now says about 100 new companies and nonprofits are building applications using Watson, mostly under revenue-sharing deals.

Livingston, N.J.-based Point of Care is among the early Watson-enabled startups to go to market. The company makes apps for doctors to consult during patient exams, with Watson alongside to synthesize prior research. Chief Medical Information Officer Sandeep Pulim (right) shows off the app at IBM Watson HQ on Tuesday.

But with 600 employees now moved into the 120,000 square feet space at 51 Astor Place, Watson Group now takes its symbolic and practical place alongside Google and Facebook as a corporate tech engine to power the city’s startup scene.

“Working closer with the burgeoning NYC enterprise tech scene will likely lead IBM to stay closer to the pulse of innovation, learn from startup methodologies and new problem areas they’re tackling, and likely acquire some of our ecosystem’s startups (which would be great for NYC),” said Jonathan Lehr, the venture director at Work-Bench, an accelerator for B2B startups backed by RR Donnelly.

The real estate move is the company’s largest relocation of researchers in its history, said Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of the Watson Group. They’re putting together the researchers, sales and marketing teams and client contacts designed to build up the Watson ecosystem, a collection of customers working on their own apps powered by Watson.

And in addition to hoping Watson Group comes to be seen as IBM’s younger, hipper city cousin, Rhodin boasted the endeavor will help bring about a new era of computing, when the challenge lies less in building new programs than in synthesizing information.

“Building systems that are information-based, not program-based,” Rhodin predicted. “In fact, in this new era, we think application writing is going to get a lot easier, a lot simpler. But designing how you acquire, maintain and manage the life cycle of the information those applications run on is actually going to be a lot more difficult, and that’s where a lot of the new innovation is going to occur.”

One early user of Watson’s software platform is Point of Care, a Livingston, N.J. startup that builds informational apps for doctors encountering conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

The startup’s app starts with a treasure trove of research data and clinical information about the disease for a doctor’s quick reference. Watson’s plain-language data analysis tool spits back results based on a doctor’s input ranked by probability and also suggests diagnoses or nuances the doctor hadn’t considered. Using the app can also qualify a clinician for continuing education credits required for licensure renewals.

Sandeep Pulim, chief medical information officer, said the Watson partnership is bringing his company’s apps to a level where large enterprises would want to buy it.

“This education feature, it’s one of the few things they have to give doctors which can improve their ultimate outcomes,” he said.

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