Gathered around a whiteboard in the kitchen of their office suite, Sanjay Chopra and Karen Barnes are deep in conversation in a language that is all their own. Among the markings and whir of their brainstorm, a few words filter through the mass of information: chat bot, click stream, question-answering systems.
The language Sanjay and Karen speak is the work of Cognistx, a cognitive computing company that opened their Customer Experience Hub at 525@vine in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter this past spring.
Cognistx is transforming the customer buying experience using cognitive computing, which it claims has the potential to become the most disruptive technology of the next 20 years.
“Cognitive computing is training computers to think like people,” explains Sanjay, the company’s chief executive officer and co-founder. “Human beings are good at looking at data and using that data to solve various problems. We train computers to solve problems in this same way to create solutions for our clients.”
For Cognistx, cognitive computing is a way to create moments of serendipity for retail businesses and the modern consumer. Imagine if your favorite store had a mobile app that could not only learn what products you like and when you like to shop, but send you special offers based on those preferences. Cognistx is doing just that for their clients.
Innovation is not always about solutions. It is also about finding the next set of problems and attacking them in a creative, holistic way.Sanjay Chopra
Today, Sanjay and Karen, senior vice president of operations, are creating solutions for Monro Muffler Brake and Service, a national auto repair chain based in New York. For this client, the solution comes in the form of an app named MotoManager, which provides customized offers and service histories to the company’s customers.
Karen refers to the app as a virtual glovebox. “When you open a car’s glovebox, it is crammed with paper, receipts, inspection records. MotoManager keeps a digital record of this information based on the client’s transaction history.”
The app not only stores but also ingests information, becoming smarter with each transaction in order to understand customer preferences better. Using transaction information, the app will learn the frequency of oil changes for each of your vehicles, send you timely offers and schedule maintenance or other services for you.
The base logic behind MotoManager is a secret formula of algorithms that Cognistx uses to develop a wide range of apps for other clients. With a few adjustments, the same technology that empowers MotoManager can be used to schedule your ideal tee time or suggest the perfect accessories for your wardrobe.
Aside from Monro Muffler Brake and Service, Cognistx is currently working with companies like Verizon and Pittsburgh Plated Glass. They are also in talks with two specialized clothing retailers to provide personalized offers for online shoppers.
With a growing client list, Cognistx is expanding the accessibility of cognitive computing in the private sector.
Sanjay cofounded Cognistx in 2015 with entrepreneur Jeff Battin and Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Eric Nyberg. Sanjay and Eric originally worked at IBM as part of the team that developed the Watson computer, while Jeff founded a data mining and analytics company in Pittsburgh.
Watson is the posterchild for cognitive computing and grabbed national attention in 2011 by earning the first place prize in Jeopardy!, defeating two of the game’s all-time players.
“The genesis of the technology Cognistx uses comes from Watson. We are the nerds from IBM,” Sanjay laughs. Watson now works with oncologists to develop cancer treatment options and compares large data sets for law enforcement agencies, among a number of other ambitious undertakings. But the self-proclaimed nerds had a radical idea to bring cognitive computing to the marketplace.
A year ago, the team recruited Karen and the company’s other partners to do just that. An experienced leader in marketing and communications with a deep understanding of human behavior, Karen leads the development and data science teams who match leading edge and proprietary machine-learning algorithms with client needs. Like Sanjay, she has a passion for expanding the accessibility of cognitive computing. She refers to their mission as “democratizing technology.”
“If you want to engage with Watson, you’re looking at a multiyear, multimillion dollar endeavor,” explains Karen. “There’s a better way to help retailers and businesses access this technology in an affordable, efficient way that leverages all of the state-of-the-art capabilities.”
In addition to bringing cognitive computing to screens around the world, Cognistx achieves accessibility through their billing method, a strategy known as “cost per action.” Clients pay a small fee up front, and Cognistx receives a percentage for each action generated. This way, the product essentially pays for itself.
A New Take on Innovation
Developing such complex technologies requires diversity in expertise, and Cognistx draws its talent from around the world. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Cognistx has employees in Raleigh, Winston-Salem and India.
A Winston-Salem native, Karen was a driving force in bringing Cognistx to the area and she knew exactly where the company’s first brick-and-mortar office should be.
“When we started talking about an office in Winston-Salem, there was only one place I wanted us to be and that was the Innovation Quarter. When I checked for space availability, there was one spot left. I visited that same day, saw that the space was perfect for what we needed and signed a lease as soon as possible.”
The Cognistx office embodies the company in many ways. With a cozy yet open vibe, the space is productive, efficient and inspiring. The layout incorporates private offices, conference space (which includes a glass “garage” door that turns part of the space into an office when closed) and an open kitchenette with a “think tank” feel—all in only 1,251 sq. feet. The space is as hardworking as the people.
Cognistx hopes to bring diversity to the Innovation Quarter through its innovative take on cognitive computing, a use of technology new to the Innovation Quarter and possibly Winston-Salem. Like the very nature of learning and innovating, cognitive computing sees a problem’s solution as a gateway to understanding larger, more critical problems.
“Innovation is not always about solutions,” Sanjay says. “It is also about finding the next set of problems and attacking them in a creative, holistic way.”
The thread of such innovation runs along the scattered notes of Sanjay and Karen’s whiteboard brainstorm and through the work of Cognistx, a team of navigators always seeking the next set of problems.