After almost three decades as the patent leader, IBM has lessons (and IP) to share with the industry, says IBM Senior Vice President and Director of Research Darío Gil.
This post originally appeared on Fortune.
For 29 years straight, IBM has led the United States in minting patents, at its peak filing over 10,000 US patent applications in a single year, for innovations ranging from the ATM, to e-commerce, to two nanometer chips and quantum computing. It’s been an amazing run – but the new IBM is ready for new challenges.
As part of our relentless capacity for reinvention, we decided in 2020 that we would no longer pursue the goal of numeric patent leadership. As a result, 2022 is the first time since 1993 that IBM didn’t claim the top spot on the list of companies with the most U.S. patents. Why, after three decades, such a shift?
One word: focus.
IBM is a hybrid cloud and AI company today. While we will remain an intellectual property powerhouse with one of the strongest US patent portfolios, as part of our innovation strategy, focus means that we are taking a more selective approach to patenting. We have turned more of our talent and resources towards achieving high-quality, high-impact advancements in the specific areas of hybrid cloud, data and AI, automation, security, semiconductors, and quantum computing.
Patents are only one measure of a company’s true capacity for innovation. IBM will continue to patent new technology, but patents alone are a more incomplete barometer than ever before.
Our long-standing commitment to research as part of our business model means we will continue to create the technologies that our clients and the world rely upon. When it comes to the most promising fields in tech – AI, cloud, security, semiconductors, and quantum computing – innovating requires deep focus and depth. These fields are so dynamic and complex, that we need more hands on deck for each breakthrough.
More and more, this requires balancing trade-secrets and patents alongside a style of R&D called “open innovation”, in which teams from various organizations and institutions collaborate with both internal and external players. They share knowledge openly around well-defined problems and communities.
Take the example of one of the most fascinating and promising technologies, quantum computing. IBM’s work in quantum computing has been intentionally based on a blend a proprietary and open innovation since day one. Our quantum hardware has always been developed internally, and protected by trade secrets and patents. But in 2016, we made the decision to put that hardware on the cloud. For the first time ever, quantum computing was no longer the domain of research scientists. Anyone with an internet connection could access the most sophisticated quantum technology in the world. We backed this up by open-sourcing our Qiskit software so developers worldwide could learn how to build quantum applications.
This has quite literally been game-changing. Today, more than 1.5 million people have downloaded the Qiskit software development kit, there are over 450,000 registered IBM Quantum users and researchers have used our technology to write more than 1,700 scientific publications. We’ve worked with academic partners to put quantum computers in Germany and Japan, with more systems to come online in Canada, South Korea and at the Cleveland Clinic in the US. Meanwhile, our IBM Quantum Network stands at more than 200 members, with enterprises from Boeing to HSBC to Mitsubishi Chemical using quantum computers to pursue industry-changing research.
We see collaboration, not exclusivity, as the best way to advance the technology and build a quantum industry.
This isn’t to say that intellectual property protection, as a concept, is going away. IBM, like most companies, is still going to protect its innovations using copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents. You simply can’t do innovation at scale without a thoughtful, proactive IP strategy to protect parts of what you have created. But a balanced innovation approach requires that technical teams devote as much energy to open innovation, community building, and delighting customers through great design and user experiences, as they do to protecting their innovations and inventions.
Today, there’s really no simple measure that can capture the nature of innovation. But our experience suggests a few goalposts that can help us do so in this new era.
We might posit, for instance, that innovation is a combination of talent, resources, and how the talent applies those resources. That might involve obtaining a patent, contributing to open source, or creating entirely new markets, like the work we are doing to build a quantum industry. And while you can’t quantify it like a single patent number, or even R&D dollars, progress will become obvious as the life and business changing applications of these exciting new technologies continue to tick up.
That’s why we’re betting that you should account for the real-world impact of a technology - not just how many patents were issued while building it.