​Exporting local innovation to the world through IBM's Australian research lab

The key to success in industry, government, and academia partnerships is longevity, IBM's Australian CTO has said.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

IBM places a heavy emphasis on the corporate research and development organisations within its business; it also takes the R&D space very seriously, with IBM Australia and New Zealand CTO Joanna Batstone explaining the key to success in the space comes down to longevity.

"Our focus around R&D in an industry context is you need to be in the world of R&D for the long haul -- we opened our corporate research labs in 1945," Batstone told the recent Australia's Asian Future conference in Sydney.

"It is decades-worth of investment to be able to constantly reinvent ... when it comes to technology."

IBM boasts dozens of research labs around the world, including in Melbourne, Australia, as well as development labs peppered throughout Australia in locations such as Perth, the Gold Coast, and Sydney.

Batstone, who is also VP and lab director for IBM Research in Australia, said the decision to set up a research lab in Australia in addition to the development labs was in part the opportunity to take advantage of the untapped talent Australia was producing.

"Historically, if you look at where we have placed our research labs around the world, we're very Northern Hemisphere-centric and we realised we were missing the opportunity to tap into the global economy and also the Asia Pacific region by not having a formal presence in Australia," she said.

The presence big blue has down under, Batstone explained, has been driven around the company's partnerships with government, industry, and academia.

A few years ago, IBM partnered with the University of Melbourne on research-related initiatives. The Victorian government then jumped on board, creating the Victorian Life Sciences and Computational Initiative, which was initially funded by the state from 2009-2016.

Batstone said this led into IBM's decision to open the research lab in Melbourne.

"It's that interplay between industry and academia that's very important because the higher education world in Australia is very strong, so the propensity to export technical talent is very strong here ... what we wanted to do was tap into the technical talent," she explained.

When IBM first brought its research presence to Victoria, it was focused on computational life sciences. Since then, it has progressed to focus on spurring innovation around high-performance computing, or protein folding, as some examples, as a result of bringing the world of academia, industry, and technology together, Batstone added.

Now, the research lab is heavily focused on artificial intelligence. Their AI-based work is leading the teams to look at creating cognitive training centres within the University of Melbourne, with the idea of educating the workforce of the future, she said.

"We're very focused on how can we take the technologies that we build in the labs and bring ... innovative technology such as those based on Watson, but now to look at locally relevant, but global opportunities of the technologies we can build here," Batstone explained.

"We're very focused on the relationship with the universities to educate and train skilled professionals to be able to take advantage of the new workforce.

"79 percent of the 1,000 US adults surveyed by Varo Money think artificial intelligence can help them better manage their finances -- many of the clients here [Australia] have been early adopters of AI technologies."

According to Batstone, Australia has incredible strengths in the areas of health and medtech, as well as quantum computing and blockchain.

"Australia is punching above its weight in the world of quantum computing," she said, pointing to Professor Michelle Simmons and her work out of the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communications Technology at the University of New South Wales.

"Australian scientists are viewed as world-leading in quantum."

However, on the topic of blockchain, Batstone said Australia has the potential to be world-leading, but the country is sitting back and watching what the rest of the world does instead.

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