Students Tap the Power of Watson

This article is part of a series called Classified, in which we spotlight some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.


It’s 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday and Solomon Darwin, Executive Director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, is challenging students to consider how the world’s smartest supercomputer can be used to transform global healthcare.

Darwin, who teaches the undergrad Open Innovation, Leveraging IBM Watson class, is slowly waking up the class in Cheit Hall with his enthusiasm. The 24 students will soon receive data from Apollo Group, the largest private integrated hospital group in Asia, which will enable them to begin using Watson to build apps and new business models.

Tommy Tianqi Shi, BS 15, says his team might focus on utilizing Watson to help doctors better manage patients at risk for heart disease or co-existing conditions. “Reducing the number of patients at risk for a certain disease or the number of hospital readmissions is a huge cost-savings for hospitals and has added value for both patients and physicians,” he says.

UC Berkeley is one of 10 top schools across North America selected to offer Watson-focused cognitive computing courses – and it wasn’t easy to earn a spot in Darwin’s class. Half the students who applied were accepted, he said.

One of the teams in the class will advance to compete for $100,000 in prize money and development resources in a nationwide competition. In addition to prize money—$50,000 from the IBM Watson Ecosystem group and $50,000 from technology venture firm The Entrepreneur’s Fund—the winning team will receive continued access to IBM’s Watson Developer Cloud and become part of the Watson Ecosystem partner program.

“I want students to realize that with these digital tools they are capable of addressing one of society’s grand challenges – global  healthcare – with a disruptive business model,” says Darwin, who teaches the class with Adjunct Associate Research Professor Donald Wroblewski.  These new models will make the biggest difference in emerging markets, where the need is the greatest, he adds.

During the first half of the semester, students will get an overview of key concepts and technical skills required to work within the Watson Developer Cloud. During the second half of the course, they will use that information to develop a business model, the precursor to taking their ideas to market. Shepherded throughout the semester by high-level IBM executives who best understand Watson, the four teams of six students are among the first to build applications that use Watson’s cognitive computing abilities.

By incorporating three key components—natural language processing, hypothesis generation/evaluation, and dynamic learning—Watson  processes information more like a human than a computer. It can process over 200 million records per second and is more up to date than any medical doctor, Darwin says. Watson learns over time as more information flows into it, including new research publications, journals, and human interactions.

As a result, it can help people in a variety of jobs and industries quickly analyze massive amounts of data and make more informed decisions. Watson’s capabilities promise to be particularly helpful in fields that face enormous big data challenges, like healthcare.

“In today’s world, medical information doubles every five years,” said David Park, BS 15. “By the time students graduate from medical school, much of the information they’ve learned is outdated. There really is no feasible way for doctors to keep up-to-date while they are busy providing care.”

During the second half of the class, Steve Myers, CTO of Optum/UnitedHealth, provided students with examples of disruptive applications for the fast-growing field of “telemedicine,” from remote patient monitoring to virtual healthcare services in dermatology, dentistry, and cardiology.

Myers is one of many guest speakers and advisors who will help guide the students through the course. Students in the course reference Haas Adjunct Professor Henry Chesbrough’s Open Business Models textbook. (Chesbrough is also a course advisor.)

Vi Tran, BS 15, says she appreciates the variety of input from advisors and fellow team members. “Working in a diverse team has been the greatest opportunity,” she says.  “Each team member and guest speaker comes from a different disciplinary background, which allows us to leverage a holistic skill set and develop strong thought leadership.”

Tran and the other students hope to travel in January to the new Watson headquarters in New York. There, one Haas undergrad team will have the chance to compete for the $100,000 award with nine other teams from schools such as Carnegie Mellon University and New York University.

Learn more about open innovation here.