How the MIT EMBA inspired this alumna to think bigger using analytics

Julie Lockner is the cofounder and executive board member of 17 Minds, which focuses on wearable technology, and COO of IBM Data and AI Portfolio Operations and Offering Management, where she helps the company apply AI to solve global problems. She also is a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2017.  

Julie came to the MIT Executive MBA program to solve a very personal problem. Her son was diagnosed with non-verbal learning disabilities and was having social, emotional, and behavioral problems in elementary school. Doctors recommended medication, yet the medications were designed for adults with different disorders and caused suicidal ideation in her son. A software engineer and mother of four, Julie saw that the MIT Media Lab was building a wearable device to predict seizures, and she wondered if that same technology could be adapted for a child like her son to identify what might be causing his tantrums. Testing the wearable on her son, she realized it could work and came to the MIT EMBA program to develop that idea into a business. 

How did you work on your startup idea at MIT?

I took concepts from every class and applied them to this idea. For example, in Product Design and Development, I worked with a team on market analysis, financial analysis, and pricing. After that class, we had two business models. One was for an analytics platform and the other was for a hardware device company. I took a lot of analytics and entrepreneurship electives. I learned how to build regression models to see if behavior is predictable. In the Analytics Edge class, I partnered with a professor at Northeastern University who previously worked in the MIT Media Lab to validate data sets. I applied System Dynamics frameworks to continue building our business model.

The program provided unlimited access to the MIT network. I used resources at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and I participated in every contest I could to raise money because we are bootstrapping this. I raised $15,000 from the MIT Sandbox Program. And I used other classes like IDEA Week and IDEA Lab to build the prototype for researchers to capture and monitor events.

What is the status of the startup today?

We’ve been developing applications and hope to get a version of the app available to the public very soon. The first version will be available for free to parents and teachers. We want as many users as possible to provide feedback. There isn’t much competition in the market because we are very early, but it’s something that people who are experiencing these challenges understand the need for. My husband sold the prototype to his startupBraveheart, where he is continuing to work on it. It recently received FDA clearance.

Why did you join IBM?

I was planning to focus on 17 Minds after graduation, but out of the blue I was given the opportunity to be chief operating officer of IBM DATA and AI Portfolio Operations and Offering Management. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Before MIT, I didn’t have the cross-functional general management experience for this type of role, but my MIT degree made me eligible. As COO, I apply my portfolio optimization strategies and tools from MIT a lot. Our teams have reduced our portfolio from over 2,000 SKUs to roughly 800 strategic products. I also focus on the backend of operations and develop a pipeline for talent.

How does your work at IBM overlap with your mission at 17 Minds?

I took the job at IBM to make a bigger impact on people’s daily lives. When I was an MIT student, my classmates participated in a NextLabproject for iKure. This is a technology company trying to address challenges for healthcare access in remote parts of India. They set up a “minute-clinic” like model to provide primary care, eye exams and glasses, and facilitate access to additional care if needed. In our research, we found that cardiac disease is the leading cause of death in India and yet there is only 1 cardiologist for every 6,000 patients. For people living in remote villages, gaining access to care is very challenging, decreasing their chances of surviving a major heart attack.

In our prototype for 17 Minds, my husband had included an electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor, which could be used to identify anomalies in an otherwise healthy heart as well as several other sensors for identifying stress in individuals. My classmates introduced iKure to Braveheart and they are now working together to create an application that sends ECG data to the cloud so it can be processed and analyzed by a cardiologist to determine risk. But the data was received and analyzed chronologically instead of by the patient’s risk level. I realized this is an AI problem and took it to IBM. Since then, IBM has assigned a team of data scientists and technologists to assist iKure in building a model to take data from the device with the patient’s relevant medical history and present a stacked rank list of high-risk patient cases to a cardiologist. This is a good example of how we can collaborate to take ideas and scale to help millions of people.

How did MIT’s EMBA program impact your leadership style?

I’ve learned the importance of developing people and giving teams as much opportunity as possible to build on their skills – establishing a culture based on a growth mentality and focusing on what’s possible. I have always been addicted to learning, but I realize that the purpose of a leader is greater, its about building teams and executing on a common vision. I also am a lot more confident because of this program. I took an idea, worked with my husband to launch a successful hardware device startup, and launched an analytics program startup. And I realize that I don’t need to be involved in everything. If I develop people and a culture based on trust, we can move mountains as a highly motivated team.

I also think about MIT’s mission of reaching for bigger goals rather than focusing on little wins. Before I came to MIT, I wasn’t looking at the big picture. I was thinking of my son’s problem and how to solve that. Today, I’m working at IBM to further advance analytics and AI to solve global problems. My lens today is much bigger and broader.

How does your leadership style incorporate mentoring women in business?

Before MIT, I was a vice president at an IT software startup and was demoted when I became pregnant with my fourth child. Given that my entire career has been in IT technology, a workforce comprised of mostly men, it was refreshing to have the opportunity to work with so many inspiring women at MIT. A few of my classmates started a women’s group in school called Women in the Executive MBA. We invited guest speakers, created chat groups, and shared our experiences to support each other. I saw how gender bias has affected many women across industries, which highlighted the importance of mentorship. I became a mentor to many of the women in my class and I currently mentor seven women at IBM.

What advice do you give prospective students about this program?

Come here with a clear sense of purpose. I benefitted a lot from this program because I was a woman on a mission and I’m still on that mission. Maximize every opportunity to meet people. Be courageous and step out of your comfort zone. This program is built on a growth mindset and you are here to experiment and learn. Think of this as a gift and how you can use this gift to make an impact. If you have an idea that will make a difference, the only thing stopping you is you.