IBM to make waves in R&D sector

10 Sep 2003

Bill Kearney feels passionately about research. In fact, the head of IBM’s Dublin Software Lab sees Ireland’s poor track record in the research area as a major national challenge. He believes that while the situation is beginning to improve, there are some issues that need to be addressed. Such as, for example, the over-protective attitude to intellectual property particularly on the part of universities.

“We should be trying to come up with ways to encourage usage of intellectual property instead of mechanisms that [just] protect it. The key metric is how much research that we produce as a country is actually used. If the outcome from an Ireland Inc point of view that you protect your rights, but the research is never used, then it’s very hard to say how good your research is,” he argues.

Likewise, he feels that even stronger links between industry and academia should be encouraged. “Ireland has a problem taking research into the industrial marketplace and if we are to be successful in the long term we have to be able to do this,” he says.

Over the past two years, Kearney and his colleagues have launched a range of initiatives that, if successful, could be the catalyst for bringing a new wave of research and development investment to IBM’s Software Group in Dublin.

One of these is the recent naming of the Santry-based facility as a Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS), one of only seven in IBM worldwide, which means the lab will now play a leading role in cultivating stronger links with leading universities and researchers.

One of the key programmes run by CAS facilities is a visiting scientist scheme, whereby a scientist working in a university spends an agreed amount of time — usually one day a week — working at an IBM research centre on projects of mutual benefit. The number of positions offered is proportionate to the facility size: for example Toronto, which has 2,000 employees, has about 60 visiting scientists, so Dublin, which has fewer than 200 staff, is currently inviting applications for five positions. The closing date for applications is 14 November with the successful candidates taking up the positions in January next year.

In addition, the facility also plans to sponsor five PhD fellowships starting in the 2004/5 academic year. The idea is that the students will work alongside the scientists on research projects.

Also as part of CAS, IBM is submitting proposals to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) for partnership research projects under the SFI’s Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology scheme, which funds projects that develop internationally competitive research clusters in Ireland.

IBM’ Dublin Software Group was established in 1987 to localise software for the European market. Since then, the ratio of software development to localisation has steadily increased, according to Kearney. “This year, for the first time, software development reached the 50pc mark and we would hope that next year the balance would be perhaps 60:40 in its favour,” he says.

The group’s vision is to expand software development activity while adding a supporting research agenda. “The endgame is to have more R&D here,” Kearney adds candidly.

But to achieve this, the facility will need to compete with other IBM locations for research funds. This is what drove a decision two years ago to raise the profile of the Irish R&D operation within the business.

Kearney points out that Ireland is neither a large market for software nor a low-cost location — two of the arguments that might be used to justify a request for research funds — so the Software Group decided instead to focus on the quality of the technical personnel in the country.

“If we can prove we have good thought leadership and good technical leadership here in Ireland then we have a better chance of getting more R&D activity. It’s not guaranteed but there’s a better chance. And over the past two years, we’ve become more and more convinced that this is the right thing to do,” he says.

The CAS programme is seen as one way to demonstrate technical leadership. Furthermore, the Software Group has put forward a number of Irish candidates to IBM’s central PhD programme that is overseen by the company’s Watson research lab in the US. Ireland has had two PhD students at Dublin City University accepted on this programme, out of a total of 50 worldwide. Kearney believes that this success can only boost Ireland’s standing within IBM as a centre for advanced research.

As well as CAS-related initiatives, this summer saw the introduction of Extreme Blue, a global IBM initiative designed to provide some of the world’s top IT students with an opportunity to work within leading IBM labs around the world. The programme has been running in the US since 1999, but this is the first year Ireland has got involved. Of the 20 Extreme Blue projects being run worldwide, five were allocated to IBM labs in Europe, two of them in Ireland.

Much of the appeal of the projects is that they centre on emerging business opportunities rather than ones that IBM has already brought to market so there is a good chance that a student involved in the programme will see their ideas and work embodied in an end product.

Eight students from four leading Irish universities are participating in the inaugural Extreme Blue programme. They have been divided into two project teams, one investigating a new type of web portal technology, the other looking at how instant messaging can be used to give parties to a teleconference call up-to-date information on, say, who is speaking and how people are listening.

Lasting 16 weeks, the Extreme Blue programme concludes next week when the students travel to IBM’s research lab in Boeblingen in Germany to present the results of their projects.

Kearney rates the programme very highly. “It is simply the best intern opportunity for students in Ireland this year,” he says with conviction. “Students get to work with the best people, meet senior IBM people that you wouldn’t meet if you were 10 years working in the company and then travel to Germany.”

Through CAS, Extreme Blue and various other initiatives, IBM Ireland is confident it can boost its status as an R&D location at a time when investment funds are scarce — and help put Ireland firmly on the research map.

By Brian Skelly

Pictured: Three of the eight Extreme Blue students pictured with IBM executives outside its software lab in Dublin. (Back row) IBM country manager; Bill Kearney, Dublin Software Lab manager, IBM; (middle row) Martin Harrigan, Limerick of University (UL); Elaine Stephen, director of Lotus Global Development Operations; Michael Desmond, UL; and (front row) Kieran O’Mahoney, UL