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Members of the "BLUE" student team from HEC Paris celebrate their victory at the first international Watson Case Competition in France.

Members of the “BLUE” student team from HEC Paris celebrate their victory at the first international Watson Case Competition in France.

By Pamela Induni

It’s been a busy start to the year for IBM’s Watson University Programs as we expand our efforts to bring together the best and brightest student minds to apply Watson and cognitive computing technology in new and interesting ways.

In fact, I’m just stepping off a plane from our very first international University Case Competition which took place in France last weekend. 

IBM and HEC Paris, one of the most prominent business schools in the world, welcomed 13 student teams from three local universities to pitch use cases for new apps and services powered by Watson.

The Paris event followed several case competitions earlier this year with the City University of New York (CUNY) and Southern Methodist University (SMU), as well as the final round of our North American Watson Intercollegiate competition.

These events are representative of the many ways IBM is partnering with universities to get faculties and students involved with Watson.  From offering unprecedented access to Watson via full semester coursework to hosting case competitions and Bluemix hackathons, our mission is to advance student skills in cognitive computing and enable the next generation of cognitive computing innovators.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the creativity and innovation put forth by the student teams from HEC, Ecole 42 and Centrale Supelec, which also happen to be the first universities in France to bring Watson into the classroom.  As one of the competition judges, alongside Watson Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Rob High and several other IBM, faculty and local business leaders, the overall quality of the student use cases made it difficult for us to decide on a winner.

The top three finalist submissions in no particular order:

  • “BecomeOne” – Focused on customized job searches based on personal preferences, the tagline for this use case says it all – “Don’t just find a job, find a life.”  The career search app would apply cognitive computing to help people find the right job based on a number of professional, demographic, regional and social criteria.
  • “Blue” – Focused on the treatment of depression and other mental illness, this use case would leverage Watson to provide therapists clinical decision support, advice and monitoring.  The  virtual therapist app and accompanying dashboard would incorporate data from journaling, behavioral modeling, and even wearable devices.
  • “Aller” – Supported by Watson’s text-to-speech and question-answer capabilities, this use case would apply Watson as a personalized travel advisor.  The app would recommend optimal trip itineraries based on destination and personal preferences, as well as pre- and post-travel options to enhance the overall travel experience.

The student teams submitted many other outstanding ideas during the competition, including an app to assist in Africa’s agricultural planning, and another to help corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals optimize their social investments and branding.

But in the end, we agreed that one project stood above the rest for its creativity, innovation and application to a real world challenge – BLUE.  The winning team included four students from the HEC MBA program in Paris.

I had a chance to talk with Bhanuteja Nadella from the BLUE team after the competition, who was excited about the opportunity to explore how technologies like Watson could address a major economic and social issue like depression by helping therapists transform point-of-care treatment.

I also spoke with Meaghan Kappel, one of two women working on the BLUE project, who noted that the competition offered the perfect blend of business challenge, startup pitch and learning opportunity, while allowing her to network with IBM and local industry experts.

As part of these courses and competitions, we work with our partner universities to give students access to Watson in the classroom via guest lectures, technical workshops and IBM mentoring. Coupled with this knowledge, students are asked to conduct independent research, identify an industry-specific challenge to address and outline a use case for new cognitive-infused apps and services that can solve it in new ways.

And the results – from this week’s winning BLUE app concept to the CallScout app developed by the University of Texas-Austin team in our North American competition – have been stunning.  As the program director for Watson’s academic initiatives, and part-time judge for our student competitions, I’m privileged to have a front row seat as student entrepreneurs take Watson’s capabilities into entirely new directions.

Pamela Induni, Program Director, Watson University Programs, IBM

Pamela Induni, Program Director, Watson University Programs, IBM

As busy as the first few months of the year have been, I’m excited for the many opportunities ahead with our university partners around the globe.  We will be working with more than 100 universities this year to bring cognitive computing to the forefront of student education. Through case competitions, hackathons, coursework and other initiatives, our program will reach thousands of students worldwide to help them find new ways for cognitive computing to transform entire industries and professions.

This mission also includes fostering greater diversity in our future business and technology leaders.  As Meaghan from the BLUE team noted, six of the seven female students in the Paris competition were members of the three finalist teams, underscoring the value of team diversity when tackling the world’s toughest business and societal challenges.

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