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USC Students Tap Into Watson’s Potential

What happens when you challenge entrepreneurial college students to build a profitable business case in 48 hours utilizing Watson’s cyber intelligence? Stand back and be amazed by the innovation and passion that’s unleashed when creative human minds tackle big challenges.

Over the weekend of Feb. 8-10, students at the University of Southern California (USC) developed business cases for new products and services in the West Coast’s first IBM Watson* Academic Case Competition. Previous Case Competitions were held at Cornell University in 2012 and the University of Rochester in 2011.

The USC Watson Case Competition was the brainchild of USC junior Mingbo Gong, an accounting and business administration major at the Leventhal School of Accounting. Gong had heard about the Cornell event and was eager to bring the competition to Los Angeles.

To get the ball rolling with IBM, he approached Ashish Soni, executive director of digital innovation at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “I suggested that he reach out to IBM executives on LinkedIn,” Soni says. Within three days of contacting IBM, Gong had received a positive response from IBM and started setting up the competition. He worked tirelessly to plan and execute the event, rallying fellow students to organize and participate.

In just four months, the USC Case Competition went from idea to reality, drawing the participation of more than 100 students from USC Viterbi, Leventhal, the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, and the Marshall School of Business. Students were placed in teams of four, and each team was required to have at least one participant from USC Viterbi and one from Marshall. The competition was advertised on the USC campus, on Facebook and by word of mouth.

IBM’s stellar reputation and Watson’s “Jeopardy!” fame were two of the big draws for the competition, Soni says. The Case Competition fits with USC Viterbi School’s mission that students be “driven to leveraging and understanding technology to use it to solve business problems,” according to Soni.

Under the guidance of Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, USC Viterbi aims to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Yortsos is a proponent of “engineering-plus,” a concept that puts engineering at the intersection of many other disciplines to develop solutions to real-world problems.

“We find that engineering-plus, innovation and entrepreneurship are very important foundations for the school. Exposing students to events like this to look at next-generation computing systems, work in teams and solve problems is core to what the school believes in,” Soni says.

Shirley S. Savage is a Maine-based freelance writer. Shirley can be reached at



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