Looking at science as a business. That was the concept that guided the creation of the IBM Research Laboratory in Brazil two years ago. The center, the first established in the southern hemisphere by the U.S. information technology giant, was conceived not only to pursue scientific and technological discoveries, but also to make a profit, positively impact the businesses of its financing sources, and develop the knowledge economy. Brazil was chosen in 2010 as the site of the facility—at the time, only the company’s ninth laboratory worldwide—because of the business opportunities that Brazil offers and its government’s strategic emphasis on innovation in recent years. “Brazil has a good business environment, a fully-developed research and development ecosystem, and more than enough professional talent,” says laboratory director Ulísses Mello, 54. “Research at IBM has been going on for 65 years, and started in mature markets, in the United States and Europe. Some years ago, the company decided to focus on emerging countries. We realized that we had to be where things are happening. That’s why we decided to open a research center in Brazil.”
The choice, apparently, was the right one. After just two years of activity, the Brazilian team has already generated more than 40 patents and written more than 100 scientific articles—two of them selected as the best by the conferences at which they were presented. IBM Research is divided into two equivalent structures, one in São Paulo and the other in Rio de Janeiro. By 2015 it will probably achieve its staffing target of 100 professionals. “I’d say that we are going to pass that figure sooner than planned,” Mello says. Having graduated with a degree in geology from the University of São Paulo (USP) and earned a PhD in that same field from Columbia University in the United States, prior to becoming director of the Brazilian laboratory, he served in New York as head of the company’s global research in the development of innovations for the natural resources sector. An award-winning researcher—in 1998 he received the Wallace Pratt Award, the principal commendation from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists—he has published more than 70 articles and holds three patents.
The science of services
IBM established four focal points for the activities of its research center in Brazil. The first is the so-called “service science.” “The objective of the multidisciplinary team is to improve the services IBM provides in the areas of information technology and consulting. We are also working to make companies in the services sector, such as banks, shops, and even government agencies, more efficient,” says mathematician Claudio Pinhanez, 49, holder of a PhD in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is coordinating, from São Paulo, the part of the center that has researchers in both in the city of São Paulo and in Rio de Janeiro. One of the most recent developments achieved by the group headed by Pinhanez was the invention of a simulator that is able to predict the impact of communication activities conducted on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, based on user behavior patterns.
The initial results of that project, conducted in partnership with researchers from the Computation Department of the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics (IME) at USP, were presented in May at the Latin American eScience Workshop 2013, sponsored by FAPESP and by Microsoft Research in São Paulo. To create the initial method for modeling and simulating interactions among users of social networks, the project collected messages that had been posted by 25,000 people to the Twitter accounts of US President Barack Obama and his opponent in the most recent presidential campaign, Mitt Romney, during October 2012, the final month of that campaign. Researchers analyzed the content of the messages and determined what each person did in terms of frequency of postings, whether they were positive or negative, and the impact of their opinions on other users. “This pioneering technology paves the technological road to an effective use of sentiment analysis by companies that are active on the Brazilian market,” Pinhanez emphasizes.
Developing intelligent human systems with an emphasis on large-scale events is the second focal point of study assigned to the Brazilian research unit. Its initial objective is to promote innovations that will be used at major athletic events that Brazil will host in the next few years, such as the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The leader of the sector, also coordinated from his native São Paulo, is electronic engineer Sérgio Borger, 47, who has been with IBM since 1990. “I was in the midst of my doctorate when the company invited me to take part in the group that was developing the first generation of IP (Internet Protocol) network management systems. I accepted the challenge and went to Raleigh, North Carolina. I spent a year there before coming back to Brazil. I worked in different parts of the company and, in 2009, joined the group that was responsible for setting up IBM Research in Brazil,” Borger says.
Borger joined the team led by researcher Fábio Gandour, one of the main champions of the Brazilian research center. A native of São José do Rio Preto in São Paulo State, a physician by training and holder of a PhD in computer science from California’s Stanford University, Gandour, 60, is the strongest advocate of the idea of treating science like a business. “Our laboratory was born out of that paradigm,” says Gandour, who has been with the company for 22 years and is especially interested in high-performance computation.
Now scientist-in-chief of IBM Research Brazil, Gandour is the first point of contact for any businessman who knocks on the doors of the company to demand a solution. “The model of science as a business benefits from the theoretical kind of science practiced in academia, but has a unique objective, that of producing results that have significant impacts on the business of the person financing it,” he says. To Gandour, science should be able to assist the production sector by helping it deal with the complexity of the environment. In order to achieve that goal, IBM is working on several projects in partnership with universities, research centers, and other companies.
IBM Research is also connected to other laboratories that the company already has in Brazil, such as work on the third focal point of research by the center—the generation of innovations related to the natural resources discovery, exploitation, and logistics, primarily in oil and gas. This part of the center will work closely with the Solutions Laboratory for the Natural Resources Industry, based in São Paulo, and the Center for Solutions for Natural Resources in Rio de Janeiro.
One of IBM’s developments in oil and gas is the use of multitouch digital tables, an interactive visualization environment that can accommodate several users at the same time. Those tables permit, for example, the collaborative visualization of models of petroleum reservoirs on the seabed. “This technology already exists and is starting to gain ground in several fields. I am integrating digital tables with oil and gas activities in order to make them more cooperative, intuitive, and interactive,” says Pernambuco researcher Nicole Sultanum, 27. One of the newest members of the IBM team of specialists, she has a Masters in computer science from the University of Calgary, Canada, and is an expert in human-computer interaction.
The fourth pillar of IBM Research consists of studies devoted to the development of intelligent devices that can be created by using advances in the field of semiconductors and microelectronics. The company projects that the laboratory will eventually become a center of collaboration for Brazilian and international companies in the development and use of those advances. Solutions created in Brazil will bolster the technology generated at IBM. In 2012, for the 20th consecutive year, the company ranked first in number of patents registered in the United States, according to a survey by IFI Claims, a specialized consulting firm. In 2012, the company filed for 6,478 patents, 5% more than in the previous year. Second on the list was Samsung, with 5,081 filings. The company’s international research structure is now composed of 12 units located in 10 countries on five continents. In addition to the Brazilian center and three units in the United States, IBM has facilities in Switzerland, Ireland, Japan, China, Australia, Kenya, India, and Israel. In all, there are more than 3,000 researchers working as a network and funded by an annual R&D budget of $6 billion. Resources allocated to this area represent 5.7% of IBM’s 2012 gross earnings of $104.5 billion.Republish