Three years ago, IBM’s (IBM) Watson made its public debut on the television game show Jeopardy!, where it beat its human competition. Since then, the game show-playing supercomputer has branched out to other pursuits — trying to serve the more serious needs of the health care and financial services industries, for example. Now, one of its biggest advocates is branching out, too.
Manoj Saxena, the former general manager of IBM’s Watson Solutions, led commercialization efforts of the company’s once-gimmicky machine. Fortune has learned that the executive (and former startup founder) has left IBM to join The Entrepreneur’s Fund, a Silicon Valley-based venture firm that primarily invests in early-stage enterprise software companies. Naturally, Saxena will be leading investments in so-called cognitive computing apps, especially those built on the Watson data analytics platform.
“As an entrepreneur, I have learned to look around the corners,” says Saxena, now managing director at The Entrepreneur’s Fund. “This whole convergence of mobile, social, big data, cloud, and analytics, it’s the perfect storm coming together for a whole new class of applications.”
Despite his new role, Saxena will still serve as an advisor to Michael Rhodin, the senior VP now in charge of IBM’s Watson Group. He’ll also co-fund many of IBM’s investments (the tech giant recently announced its own $100 million Watson-focused fund) and vice-versa. Saxena and IBM have already made their first bet on a Denver-based health care management company called Welltok. The idea is to connect employees with corporate wellness plans by tapping into Watson’s ability to read “millions of pages of data within seconds” and improve “its own performance by learning.”
“The ideas [for Watson] won’t just come from within IBM,” Saxena says. “We want to let the best and the brightest innovate.”
In addition to Welltok, Saxena’s fund has already made three other Watson-focused investments, though he declined to give names. At least initially, both Saxena and IBM’s funds will focus on companies that serve the health care, retail, travel, financial services, and legal industries.
IBM continues to have big hopes for Watson. Just last month, the company announced it would invest more than $1 billion to create the Watson Group, dedicating 2,000 employees to commercializing the technology. Last November, it opened up its “Watson Developers Cloud,” giving third parties access to its software development tools. And CEO Ginni Rometty has said the technology will usher in a new era of computing — yes, one as big as mainframes and PCs.
But unlike platforms like Google’s (GOOG) Android or Apple’s (AAPL) iOS, IBM’s Watson will likely take many more years to become mainstream, if it ever does. Just “teaching” Watson — a.k.a. feeding it mountains of data — can be costly and time-consuming. With that said, funds that focus heavily on investing in these kinds of applications should help speed things along. (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ iFund, a $100 million fund focused on investing in iPhone apps, certainly didn’t hurt Apple’s ecosystem when it launched back in 2008.)
IBM has said it expects Watson and other business analytics products will help bring in $20 billion in revenue by 2015. If that’s the case, then the company — and Saxena — will soon have much more than a Jeopardy! championship to tout.