The tech giant publishing in top journals

25 April 2016

Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM

IBM scientist Jerry Chow is one of 3000 in-house scientists working for the tech company.

IBM topped the Nature Index ranking of companies publishing in leading research journals in 2015.

What if you could power your home with a more sustainable source of electricity simply by spraying a layer of solar panels on to a film on your roof? That’s one of the potential applications of research by Illan Kramer, an electrical engineering post-doc at the University of Toronto who developed a method to spray light-sensitive material called colloidal quantum dots (CQDs) on to a flexible film. The SprayLD system, as it’s called, has attracted the attention of researchers and the mass media, but beyond the wow factor, the story exemplifies the game-changing possibilities of partnerships between academics and business — in this case, IBM. In 2015, the IT giant topped the Nature Index ranking of companies publishing in leading research journals based on the size of its contribution to high-quality research (WFC).

IBM has about 3,000 in-house scientists working in 12 labs in the United States, Japan, China, India, Brazil, Australia, Israel, Kenya, Ireland and Switzerland. Their research spans a broad spectrum of inquiry, including everything from blockchain technology, the underpinning bitcoin, to wearable devices for Parkinson’s patients. In the past year, IBM researchers have published papers in the index on a nanoscale MRI technique, a new class of “self-healing” gels that could improve 3D printing. The capacity of SprayLD to transform flexible materials into solar cells without significant loss in efficiency, which was described in a 2015 Advanced Materials paper by Kramer and collaborators.

Idea to reality

Kramer did the work as an IBM employee after applying to become an IBM researcher affiliated with the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform (SOSCIP), a consortium of Ontario universities and the IT giant. “I had been toying with the idea of making something producible prior to joining IBM and certainly considered spray-coating as one option, but I don’t think the project really got off the ground until I was working with IBM,” says Kramer, whose University of Toronto colleagues did the bulk of the theoretical modelling while he focused on the experiments. “IBM provided technical support for us to use SOSCIP’s Blue Gene/Q supercomputer. We used these resources to exhaustively model the characteristics of both individual colloidal quantum dots and coupled CQD systems,” says Kramer, who left his position at IBM about a year ago.

Kramer’s research is one of countless examples linked to IBM. Although most people consider it a tech company, it’s is less renowned as a science powerhouse that consistently earns the top spot in the number of patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 2015, it received 7,309 patents, thousands more than second-ranked Samsung Electronics and third-ranked Canon. In the Nature Index, IBM came in second behind F. Hoffman-La Roche AG when considering the total number of articles its researchers published. In 2015, the corporate giant sometimes referred to as ‘Big Blue’ spent $5.247 billion on R&D and engineering.

Push to publish

“IBM Research puts a high value on publishing in peer-reviewed journals,” says spokeswoman Kirsten Graham. “Publishing makes up a large part of the annual review of our scientists and is a factor in their career development.” The company uses an internal ‘impact factor’ statistic that measures their scientists in a given year. Says Graham: “IBM Research is dedicated not only to fundamental research, but to exploring and creating innovative industry and client-oriented solutions based on key areas including cognitive computing and artificial intelligence, security and privacy, Internet of Things, data-centric systems, next-generation silicon technology, brain-inspired devices and infrastructure and advanced analytics.”

Founded more than a century ago in Endicott, New York, the company has an impressive record of scientific achievements. It has produced six Nobel laureates, including Nobel Prizes in Physics in 1986 and 1987 for the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope and the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity, respectively. Other accolades include 10 U.S. National Medals of Technology, five U.S. National Medals of Science, six Turing Awards and 19 inductees to the National Academy of Sciences. Other IBM innovations have included the early programming language FORTRAN, magnetic disk storage, dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), relational databases, the chess-playing Deep Blue computer, speech recognition, quantum computing, and Watson, the natural-language processing computer system known for defeating human champions on the quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011.

By Tim Hornyak

Read more about the scientists working at IBM.

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