Meet the Team: Dr. Joe Marks

Joe Marks, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Center for Machine Learning and Health where he leads strategic initiatives, business development, and negotiations. Dr. Marks brings a unique background of innovation and entrepreneurship experiences to the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance, including roles at BBN Technologies (Bolt, Beranek and Newman), Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, and Walt Disney. He recently sat down to share his journey to the Alliance.

You’ve said before that chess kickstarted your career in innovation, how?

I grew up in Dublin, Ireland in the ‘60s and ‘70s playing chess. I’ve always enjoyed how it’s a simple game – pieces can only do a few types of moves – yet the strategy possibilities are endless. When I was at Harvard as an undergrad, computers were still relatively new but I immediately saw a connection to chess – the code had a simple set of rules, but there was no limit to what you could do with it. I began by taking night courses and then became completely hooked. From there, I knew computer science was what I wanted to be involved with for the rest of my life.

Unlike other healthcare innovators, you didn’t start immediately within life sciences – what came first?

Joe MarksOut of Harvard, I had a few great opportunities that surrounded me with extraordinary people and machines. At BBN Technologies, I worked on a team developing computer-based simulations. The work was cutting-edge, and the technology was used as the foundation for all future military trainings. Interestingly, because I came to the United States when I did – I never learned how to drive. So, the first time I drove something, it wasn’t a car, it was an M-1 Abrams battle tank to fine-tune our simulations.

On top of that, just down the hall from me at BBN was Ray Tomlinson who invented peer-to-peer email and the use of the “@” symbol in email addresses. It was environments like this where I understood that writing code could truly change the world.

With all of this early experience and knowledge, where did you go?

I went off to get more knowledge! I knew that there were opportunities available at institutions similar to BBN for people with advanced degrees, so I went back to Harvard to get my master’s and doctorate in computer science. These degrees opened up doors for me to become a research scientist and director at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs where I both conducted and oversaw research in computer graphics and human-computer interaction. After Mitsubishi, I teamed up with Disney and Pixar to launch a premier R&D arm of the corporation. At Disney, I helped set up labs around the world that would research video processing, robotics, media distribution, and other computer-related entertainment and media fields. Through all of this, I became an expert researcher, director, and leader, but still, I wanted to do more. I wanted to be involved with startups and work on initiatives that could have world-changing impacts.

What better way to learn about startups than to start your own?

Exactly. I traveled back to Ireland where I learned first-hand what to do – and also what not to do. One startup led to another, and before long I was back in the United States. I, again, happened to be in the right place at the right time and was introduced to the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance. The Alliance was a combination of everything that I wanted: academic research, trailblazing computer science, and the opportunity to positively impact something we all have in common – our health. I joined on and haven’t looked back. My favorite days are the ones where I get to hear great project proposals or where a team has an exciting breakthrough – which, I’m happy to add, are days that occur with alarming frequency.

Thanks for sharing your journey with us, any final thoughts?

Joe MarksPlay more chess. It’s a great game filled with strategies that make you think more dynamically. Plus, you never know who you’re going to meet – I made a friend back on my grade school chess team who applied his innovative thinking in a slightly more musical direction.