Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Austin State of Mind: Driving Innovation at the Chamber of Commerce


Akshay Sabhikhi


It's an exciting time to live and work in Austin. This has been my home since 1989. I graduated from the University of Texas and worked in the local startup sector, where I experienced both the software revolution of the 1990s and the dot-com crash of 2001, and later joined IBM during a major turning point in its history. From all these vantage points I witnessed Austin transform into a global technology hub with rich employment opportunities.

I?m honored that the Board of Directors of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has selected me to serve as the 2016 Vice Chair of Innovation. It?s an occasion for me to reflect on my vision for the role and the challenges ahead for our region.

Austin has come a long way, but our work isn?t nearly done, and that brings me to my new position at the Chamber. The population of the Austin metropolitan area is expected to double, from 2 million to 4 million people by 2040. Not only must we remain competitive with other tech meccas, we must prepare our economy and infrastructure for the people who continue to flock here in search of fulfilling careers and the famous quality of life.

As the voice of business in Greater Austin, the mission of the Chamber of Commerce is to shape an innovative business climate for the Central Texas community. My mandate as Vice Chair of Innovation is three-fold: initiate programs that support a strong and unique innovation ecosystem in our region, attract world-class talent to our corporations and research institutions, and bring in more investment capital to support growing businesses.

When we imagine the ideal innovation ecosystem, we picture one that is distinct from other places like San Francisco or Seattle. We?re a metropolitan area of millions that still feels like a town, and it?s a place where technologists and entrepreneurs mix freely with academics, designers, philosophers, musicians, and artists over breakfast tacos, Texas barbecue, and live music. Our success stems from this melting pot, and that?s why our emphasis should be to create more outlets for creativity and more opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.

I recently spoke on a panel at SXSW about our city?s emergence as an artificial intelligence industry hub. We have high-growth companies like CognitiveScale, major global tech firms including IBM, Apple, Intel, Samsung, and Facebook, as well as world-class computer science research at the University of Texas-Austin. In my new position I?ll be asking, how can we encourage industry, academia, and community leaders to partner in domains like AI?

At CognitiveScale we are fortunate to have Dr. Joydeep Ghosh, Chaired Professor of computer science at UT, on our advisory board and his PhD students as interns. Just as UT leads in cutting edge machine learning research, it is breaking new ground in healthcare with Dell Medical School, the first med school in decades to be built from the ground up at a Tier 1 research university. With industry and academia working together, Austin now has an unparalleled opportunity to become a leader in applying AI innovation toward the future of patient care.

I was pleased to learn about UT?s new Center of Integrated Design, helmed by design and business leader Doreen Lorenzo, which is the first undergraduate program to unite business, technology, and design majors at a public university. Here aspiring computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and designers will converge to shape how we experience the critical technologies of the future like AI.

We need to retain the right talent in Austin ? not only right out of school, but with deep domain and industry expertise. Established firms like IBM, Dell, and Apple play an important role in attracting and keeping top-tier talent here, and their deep pockets help drive tech commercialization. Like IBM Watson did for cognitive computing, these companies are defining new spaces and clearing the path for emerging startups. Later on the big firms can provide additional support to the startup scene as strategic investors.

But the big companies can?t go it alone in fueling the ecosystem. Industry and community leaders need to work together to attract talent as well as new investment capital. To continue growing as an innovation hub, it?s critical that we diversify the funding landscape for emerging tech ? not only the seed and angel investors but growth and late-stage capital to support the full range of firms in the city.

It?s during major events like SXSW and Austin City Limits that our city captures the attention of people from around the world. It?s obvious to me that Austin?s creative roots, as well as our long-standing reputation as an entertainment capital, will help us shape a vibrant innovation ecosystem like no other. At SXSW this year it was a pleasure for me to meet a group of investors who were curious about our ideas and our way of life. I look forward to many more opportunities representing the Chamber and the business community in growing and elevating the Austin state of mind.

Akshay Sabhikhi is the CEO of CognitiveScale and is responsible for identifying, incubating, and launching innovative cognitive solutions. Read more about Akshay here.

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