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Fight On, Watson!

USC Marshall OMBA students create startups using IBM Watson technology

November 10, 2017
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An online MBA course at the USC Marshall School of Business tasks students to develop a startup concept that takes advantage of the supercomputing abilities of IBM Watson, supporting each team with IBM mentors and experts. The end-of-semester pitch competition could determine more than just a grade — it could very well introduce the next hot AI startup.
 
GSBA 535: Opportunity Recognition and Implementation, team taught by Professor of Clinical Business Communication Pete Cardon and Associate Professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship Elissa Grossman, has been up and running the past two years. It integrates entrepreneurship and business communication learning in a course as innovative as the supercomputer technology at its core.

“We knew it would be exciting partnering with USC to explore the possibilities of artificial intelligence with the brightest business minds. What we weren’t prepared for was the creativity in the startup ideas from the students: everything from the automated review of legal contracts to the creation of a data-driven record label.” --Daryl Pereira, creative content director, IBM Watson and Cloud Platform
 

Student teams first explore and understand the artificial intelligence and analytical software capabilities of IBM Watson, and then identify a problem and a solution. They develop a business model and plan for that solution that reflects feasibility analysis encompassing potential markets, customers, competition and more.

All of this work is guided by Marshall faculty and IBM mentors. Finally, the teams make a professional pitch to a panel of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

“This is not an abstract exercise,” said Cardon, who is also academic director for the MBA for Professionals and Managers. “This is a very intense project that places students in a situation where they are thinking about how to use cutting-edge technology for new products. And we provide access to the people who are really doing this — the experts at IBM.”

Daryl Pereira, creative content director for the IBM Watson and Cloud Platform, helped design this project, and continues to help manage and mentor it. He said the collaboration has produced impressive results.
 
Big Ideas
“We knew it would be exciting partnering with USC to explore the possibilities of artificial intelligence with the brightest business minds,” Pereira said. “What we weren’t prepared for was the creativity in the startup ideas from the students: everything from the automated review of legal contracts to the creation of a data-driven record label.”
 
The Music Predictor to which Pereira referred was the brainchild of Steven Truong, Michele Rosette and Erin Young, all members of the MBA class of 2018. Truong described the predictor in a special guest post on the Cognitive Business website as “a cognitive tool that analyzed song metadata and social media to provide projections of future revenue for a potential song, allowing smaller record labels to refine their budgets.”

As the winner of the pitch competition, Truong’s team was invited to the IBM Watson Developer Conference. “We spent a significant part of our time applying our fresh business knowledge to the various IBM technologies that were showcased,” he said. “We discussed feasibility of novel technology-business concepts, pondered the unmet market needs for various exhibitions and discussed real startups with more veteran entrepreneurs that are in high-growth technology spaces.”

The course creators spent a great deal of time discussing how to best connect students in the online environment to entrepreneurial projects that had both educational relevance and real-world utility, said Grossman.

“In partnering with IBM, we’ve been really fortunate to be able to deliver on both of those criteria,” she said. “We’ve been able to provide expertise and support to students who can then freely explore high potential startup ideas that use some of the technologies rapidly emerging as central to contemporary life and business.”