IBM’s ‘Watson’ makes its first investment

Feb 12, 2014

FORTUNE -- Last month, IBM committed to invest $100 million in tech startups that are leveraging Watson, the company's famed cognitive computing platform. Today, IBM (ibm) will announce that the first portfolio company in its "Watson Fund" is Welltok, a Denver-based health optimization platform.

IBM is participating in Welltok's new $22 million Series C funding round, which is being led by venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. Also investing is Qualcomm Ventures and existing Welltok shareholders Emergence Capital Partners, InterWest Partners, Miramar Venture Partners and Okapi Venture Capital.

The choice of Welltok as IBM's first Watson investment is no surprise. For starters, IBM had identified healthcare as one of the three industry verticals it wanted to target (the others were retail and travel). Equally important, Welltok had begun using Watson for a "concierge" product that lets users access personalized health information and gain rewards for "positive behavior change."

"This use case was almost ideal," says Steve Gold, vice president of IBM's Watson Group unit. "For example, Watson has the ability to navigate natural language, letting individuals interact and ask questions. It also has a unique ability to understand, in context, vast amounts of disparate data. In the case of Welltok, the company is collecting lots of unstructured data from various third party health and wellness providers. Plus, Watson learns. Both about healthcare and wellness broadly as Welltok adds members, but also about individual members, which makes it the ultimate concierge. "

Gold adds that the Watson Fund is currently evaluating several other investment opportunities, although he declined to provide specific names.

IBM CEO Ginny Rometty is on record as predicting that Watson will become a $10 billion business within the next decade, a very tall order given that it hasn't yet topped the $100 million mark as of last October. The investment fund is part of that effort, both as a carrot to potential partners and also as a way to highlight the work of those already using the system.

"Our investments will follow the logic associated with the ecosystem," Gold explains. "It gives us a much more intimate relationship to collaborate on what their vision is today and to influence what their vision will be tomorrow. The business proposition precedes the investment."

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