IBM eyes Israeli start-ups for new apps that ‘think’
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IBM eyes Israeli start-ups for new apps that ‘think’

Watson-based technology will loom large for companies enrolled in the new round of the AlphaZone Accelerator

Nathan Low (L) and Dror Pearl at the inauguration event for the IBM Alpha Zone accelerator (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Nathan Low (L) and Dror Pearl at the inauguration event for the IBM Alpha Zone accelerator (Photo credit: Courtesy)

IBM is looking to Israeli start-ups to develop the next generation of “thinking” computer technology– cognitive applications that use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms to “figure out” how to respond to a set of circumstances. Israel, said Dror Pearl, head of IBM Israel’s Global Technology Unit (GTU), has been an important source for some of this cognitive technology, and IBM is hopeful that start-ups that enroll in the next round of IBM’s AlphaZone Accelerator program will develop cognitive apps that make use of big data, harnessing it to create apps that can essentially “think.”

Like IBM’s Watson, the famous big data/cognitive computing system. Watson is the supercomputer built by IBM that clobbered the top champs on the US TV quiz show “Jeopardy” in 2011, winning the top prize as it played against the best human players who have participated in the long-running program. “Watson was built to show the capabilities for artificial intelligence and using and understanding natural language,” said Gabi Tal, one of the creators of the GTU. Israel had an important part in the initial development of Watson technology at IBM’s Haifa lab. More than just a supercomputer, Watson is a platform, “a solution that will apply advanced analytics to a variety of industries, like healthcare, finance, and customer services,” he said.

One California company using the Watson platform is GenieMD, a mobile app that analyzes a person’s profile and sends push notifications to the user with information on how to manage their diabetes or how to prevent hypertension. GenieMD, a Watson Mobile Developer Challenge winner, uses Watson’s cognitive intellect and data analysis to understand an individual’s personal health profile. Users ask GenieMD questions in natural language, and the app analyzes volumes of data to offer personalized recommendations based on an individual’s profile.

Other companies are using Watson-based solutions for retail sales, customer service, non-profit fundraising, and even veterinary treatment for animals.

Pearl said the AlphaZone program is seeking companies that will develop not just cognitive apps, but also cloud apps, mobile technology, Internet of Things tech, and others for the health, retail, travel & transportation, energy and utility, and media and entertainment spaces, but cognitive will most likely be a top draw for start-ups seeking to participate in the program, after the release last week of the first Watson Platform services for app developers. The services include language identification (figuring out what language text is written in), concept expansion (interpreting the term ‘The Big Apple’ as meaning ‘New York City,’ for example), User Modeling (employing linguistic analysis to make predictions about an individual’s social characteristics from a supplied text), and more. Each of them, said IBM, will enable developers to build intelligent apps for “a new era of computing in which apps and systems interact with human users more naturally, augment our knowledge with big data insights, and learn to improve how they assist us.”

As in its first round, the AlphaZone program – IBM’s first-ever accelerator – will looking to choose eight Israeli companies for first-ever solutions. Companies have till mid-November to sign up. The 24-week program, set to begin in January, will include access to the storage and services available on IBM’s SoftLayer cloud, access to IBM tech people and developers, work with mentors from both the technology and business world, assistance with patenting/IP and other legal issues, access to and meetings with angels and investors, and Demo Days in Israel and the US or Europe.

IBM is not retaining any equity in accelerator companies, and isn’t charging any money. There are no requirements to sell the tech to IBM, and the company is not even taking a portion of the intellectual property developed by program members. For IBM, it’s enough to have the opportunity to work with innovative start-ups and to help them sell their products for the benefit of all, said Pearl.

The companies chosen for the program are already on the road to success, said Nathan Low, whose Ziontech Blue and Sunrise Financial Group are providing the business development component of the program. “Eight hundred new start-ups are established in Israel each year, but only 100 get funding,” he said. “This partnership with IBM will hopefully jump-start investors to get excited about some of the very deserving start-ups. Start-ups have the technology, IBM has the sales force to help companies sell their products, and we have the skills companies need to make those products marketable. Together we are going to bring a lot more Israeli technology to the world,” said Low. “We believe that companies coming out of this program will be more than ready to have a major impact on the market.”

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