IBM is known as one of the world’s computing juggernauts. So when IBM first announced its artificial intelligence (AI) question-answer based project Watson (named after IBM’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson) in 2010 there was a lot of interest into potential practical uses for the technology, specifically in the health sector. According to IBM, “The goal is to have computers start to interact in natural human terms across a range of applications and processes, understanding the questions that humans ask and providing answers that humans can understand and justify.”

In 2011, Watson wowed the public relations crowd by competing on the legendary USA television quiz show Jeopardy. Over three matches, IBM Watson won Jeopardy’s covotted 1M USD prize.  IBM’s Christopher Padilla said of the match, “The technology behind Watson represents a major advancement in computing. In the data-intensive environment of government, this type of technology can help organizations make better decisions and improve how government helps its citizens.”

Since Jeopardy, Watson has had numerous other public relation scores announcing several industry health partnerships for Watson. 

Despite seemingly early success for Watson, nearly a decade has passed without any real major practical Watson successes at scale. As public perception noticed a growing gap between Watson’s promise of “ushering in system wide healthcare innovation through the use of big data” and actual progress, the company decided to make leadership changes. Enter Paul Roma, IBM’s Watson Health newly appointed general manager late July 2019. 

“Going forward, the word is focus,” says Roma. Reading between the lines, it seems that many of IBM Watson’s health projects were not successful as anticipated.  “We’re going to double down on what’s working, and we’re going to get super focused on execution… On a back-to-basics level, if we can execute on what’s in front of us with the clients that we have now, we’re going to be really successful,” Roma went on to say.  

Perhaps IBM’s Watson does have a prosperous future ahead of it given the general fact that healthcare still has all the unmet needs Watson promised to innovate years ago. Roma’s new role as health GM for Watson comes with a successful prior tenure at Ciox, a informational technology company currently handling medical records data for over 3,000 hospitals across the United States. Before Ciox, Roma was Deloitte’s global consultancy practice analytics chief. 

What industry in general and Watson specifically has lagged so far is really understanding, and utilizing, the value of health data and resulting possibilities to at scale improve tools doctors use in the field and yield the best solutions for patient care. Roma comments “…it is my belief that we’re at a point in time, both in technology and medicine, where the technology needs to do better at helping doctors and patients interpret all this information at the right time, and give them a better way to approach their healthcare.” Some others say we are yet decades away from achieving this goal and so far it has remained hard to prove them wrong.

“It is clear to me that the challenges in front of us require an integrated platform,” IBM’s Roma says. “You have to have a deep bench, not just in technology experience, but also in the ability to productize it and bring it to the market at scale.”

While pharmaceutical product development is a lengthy process of identifying and measuring patient benefit, innovating an entire industry through complex integrated technology solutions that span across types of value chain participants, is not often something that can be achieved single handedly either. 

We will see the success or failure of this pioneer program and continue working with clients to build strategies, partnerships and financings to take forward their own innovations. 

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