IBM, developer of the “Watson” computing system best known for beating human contestants on the TV game show, “Jeopardy!” has turned to student teams at the University of Connecticut School of Business’ Stamford Learning Accelerator for ideas on turning data among Watson’s vast inventory of unstructured information into purpose-based recommendations.
IBM invited the UConn School of Business and its Stamford Learning Accelerator earlier this year to create and propose plans on how Watson could be used in particular industries to help them solve productivity problems, advance their research, and become more profitable.
While IBM has held similar competitions in the past, what distinguishes the UConn project from those initiatives is that the corporate giant proactively invited UConn’s participation and worked with the students all semester from concept to completion of the plans. Only one other university, Michigan State, has received a similar invitation, though IBM is also working with six other U.S. universities through case study competitions.
A team of IBM Watson senior executives even came to UConn-Stamford on a Saturday in October to help UConn students midway through their research, and returned again on December 5th to hear the student teams present their final research and recommendations.
For the students, it was the culmination of a highly demanding semester-long class created by UConn Marketing Professor Girish Punj utilizing the resources of the Stamford Learning Accelerator’s experiential learning lab. Professor Punj is also a recent recipient of an IBM Watson Solutions Faculty Award along with a $10,000 grant. For IBM, it’s the start of a review process that could launch new initiatives and new projects with other industries.
UConn and IBM have collaborated on other initiatives in the past, including recent work by the School of Business to develop its Master of Science Degree in Financial Management. John Elliott, Dean of the UConn School of Business, said IBM’s participation in that process and its commitment to the students’ Watson proposals exemplifies the kind of partnerships that UConn envisioned when it created its portfolio of business learning accelerators. “One of the things we look for is an organization that cares enough about the problem and is invested enough in the notion of student engagement to actively put talent at the table and work with us,” Elliott said. “This is an example of what we try to do broadly to relate to the business community, ensuring what we’re doing is on the cutting edge of what the business community needs and wants,” he said.
In the case of the Watson projects, the students are following up their final presentations by providing detailed reports, also known as white papers, to IBM officials to share with others at the corporation.
The Watson computing system came into the public eye in early 2011 when it defeated two of the most highly successful players in “Jeopardy!” history on that ABC-TV quiz show. Questions are posed to Watson in natural speech, as opposed to computer programming language, and the computer searches its vast archives of information from encyclopedias, news articles, Internet pages, and other sources for possible solutions and narrows them down with subsequent questions. Although the information comes from disparate sources, pulling their common elements together can result in solutions that otherwise might have taken countless hours and intensive manpower – or might never have been found at all.
The UConn teams, comprising a blend of full- and part-time students with a variety of backgrounds, were tasked with presenting ideas to IBM executives on how the Watson technology could be commercialized, essentially acting as part of the IBM Watson commercialization team.
The first team focused on integrating Watson into the pharmaceutical industry, a financially attractive sector and potentially a natural partner to work that IBM is launching in a partnership with WellPoint to crunch data to help suggest treatment options and diagnosis to doctors. In the pharmaceutical industry, Watson’s technology could help companies in the process of seeking and protecting patents, research to accelerate drugs toward their product launch, the growing field of “new indications” in which compounds in drugs meant for one condition are re-purposed to help in other conditions, and other work.
The second team presented ideas to the IBM officials on how Watson could make customer call centers more efficient by helping operators get accurate answers more quickly, helping companies with recruiting and retention, and retaining vast stores of data on previous answers so the companies don’t lose institutional memory when employees leave.
IBM officials who attended the December 5th presentations were so impressed that they encouraged the students to send resumes and to consider the corporate giant in their career searches. “What impressed me is how well you took Watson and applied it to the problem,” Stephen Gold, worldwide marketing director for IBM’s Watson Solutions, told the students. “What you’ve picked up here are the subtleties of how Watson could be used.”
Bill Hume, director of Watson Core Technology for IBM, shook his head slightly in wonder after the presentations and said the UConn students delivered exactly the level of sophistication and detail that the corporation is seeking. “I just think it was fantastic. You hit on all of the deliverables we suggested and you did it really well. I’m very impressed,” he told the students. One of the executives who worked with the student teams and attended the final presentations is no stranger to UConn: Peter Bouchard ’78, ’80 MBA, an IBM Distinguished Engineer in its Watson Solutions division, is also a School of Business alum.
The Stamford Learning Accelerator at UConn-Stamford is among several successful experiential learning facilities around the state run by the School of Business. In each center, UConn blends its constantly updated business curricula with projects intended to immerse students in real-world experiences.
The Watson project also gave students in the Stamford Learning Accelerator a chance to learn from each other’s varied experiences. Some are part-time MBA students working in a wide variety of careers, while others are full-time MBA students and one is an undergraduate. Most are based at UConn-Stamford, but a few come from the Storrs and Greater Hartford campuses, too. “We were able to collectively use each component that each person brings to the table and come up with good ideas for the sample use cases,” said Donald Butts ’13 MBA, who is pursuing his degree part-time while working as a dynamics and acoustics engineer at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.
Asked what they would tell other students about the experiential learning process, Tiffany Betz ’14 MBA said they can expect to be challenged and inspired in equal parts. “I would tell them it’s a lot of work,” said Betz, a part-time MBA student who is also the web content specialist for the American Institute for Foreign Study in Stamford. “You have to learn a lot about a lot of things before you can even understand where to start, but it was really rewarding. I feel like I’ve learned so much.”
In addition to Butts and Betz, other UConn students who worked on the IBM Watson project teams include Anu Jose ’13 MBA, Thomas Jose ’13 MBA, Anna Jakubek ’07, ’14 MBA, Robert Johnson ’13, and Siddhartha Sharan ’13 MBA.
To learn more about the Stamford Learning Accelerator, please visit
Pictured from left to right:
- Peter Bouchard, Distinguished Engineer, IBM Watson Solutions, UConn BUS ’78, MBA ’80
- Stephen Gold, World-wide Marketing Director, IBM Watson Solutions
- James Koh, Lead, Global Risk Management – Enablement & Awareness, IBM
- Ian Bennett, Software Performance Engineer, IBM Watson Solutions
- Bill Hume, Director Watson Core Technology, IBM Watson Solutions
- Donald Butts, Team Member, MBA ’13, UConn School of Business
- Anna Jakubek, Team Member, MBA ’14, UConn School of Business
- Robert Johnson, Team Member, Undergraduate, UConn School of Business
- Tiffany Betz, Team Member, MBA ‘13 UConn School of Business
- Anu Jose, Team Member and MBA ’13 UConn School of Business
- Siddhartha Sharan, Team Member, MBA ’13, UConn School of Business
- Robert Bry, Relationship Manager, IBM Academic Initiative
- Professor Girish Punj, IBM Watson Project Faculty, Marketing Department, UConn School of Business
Not pictured: Thomas Jose, Team Member, MBA ’13, UConn School of Business