Continuing from my previous post on SXSW Interactive and startups, I started out today at the SXSW Interactive Accelerator – a three-day series of mind-blowing startups pitching their products to three judges that will decide which ones become finalists and then which ones will be award winners. I love this stuff, and what I saw today made me want to fund each one. (Check out my tweets on the smarterplanet twitter feed using the hashtag #sxswaccel.)
Following the competition, I attended the presentation by IBM Watson lead researcher Dr. Dave Ferrucci because I was quite interested in his perspective on two things: 1) How could the startups I’d met throughout the week use Watson technology, and 2) Did he think the whole Watson project was like a startup? (And, if so, did he have any tips for the startups I’d seen earlier on how to push through the impossible.)
His talk was fascinating (review at smarterplanet twitter feed, hashtag #ibmwatson). After his talk, I was lucky enough to get 15 minutes with him to ask my questions about Watson and startups:
Watson technology and startups:
MyQ: Can startups use Watson technology?
Ferrucci: “Yes. The technology could definitely be applied to all the stuff they are doing. It’s great to see and hear what these teams are doing and seeing how they can use what we’ve done to help them out. We’re working on APIs - ways to get into the functionality and ways to get stuff from it – that these innovators will be able to use. It will be fascinating to see where they’ll take it.”
Watson as a startup:
MyQs: Was the Watson project like a startup? Did you feel like an entrepreneur? And what advice would you give other entrepreneurs and startups?
Ferrucci: “Yes, it very much was like a startup and I did feel like an entrepeneur having to pitch our ideas to the VCs (in IBM’s case, upper management). And one thing I discovered was that the way to win them over was to make them believe in you, in the team. I’m talking about doing it in a very credible manner that gets them on your side. Show them the data, show them your conviction, show them how it could be possible.
From our experience, a piece of advice I’d give to entrepreneurs and startup teams is to work every single day on your dream believing it will happen. Make your dream an irresistible vision, like we had with Watson. And drive that into your team. And I mean drive it, passionately.
For example, when Watson team members said they didn’t believe something could be coded a certain way I told them they had to believe it can be done first. They thought I’d entered the world of mysticism, but in fact, if you code like you believe it can be achieved, you’ll code differently. They thought I was nuts – but when they started coding believing the solution was out there, they found that they coded better.
If you think it can’t be done, you’ll write code with a wall in front of you. You’ll give up early. But, if you believe it can be done, you’ll code in a different way, you’ll think in a different way. And this applies to everything on the project. Believing you can do something helps you find the path through to the answer. That was very important on our project. Everyone had to believe it could be done.
And I think that applies to all the startups out there – they have to believe without a doubt that what they are going to do is possible – even it if seems impossible. It really does change the way you’ll tackle every problem that comes up. And the VCs will notice the difference. And with a bit of luck, they’ll believe too and you’ll be on your way.”
The video below called “Building Watson” gives you a good sense of what it was like for Dave and the team to take on this challenge. (A grand challenge as IBM calls it). And you can learn more about the team here.
A final observation: The SXSW Interactive Accelerator competition for startups, my conversation with Dave about Watson and startups, my meetups with them in cabs and hotels around Austin, all tell me that we’re on the verge of a new wave of global innovation. One that events like SXSW Interactive are tapping into. Same goes for events like IBM Global Entrepreneur’s IBM SmartCamp startup competition happening almost monthly in cities all over the planet. It’s good to see all this activity around innovation and innovators popping up again because if the entrepreneurs I’ve met in only 3 days at SXSW are any indication of where we’re going, I’m excited about how our future is shaping up. Thanks for reading and I’ll have more tomorrow.