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Why IBM is no longer interested in breaking patent records–and how it plans to measure innovation in the age of open source and quantum computing

January 6, 2023, 7:25 PM UTC
Director of IBM Research Darío Gil says open innovation will catalyze advances in fields such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
Misha Friedman - Getty Images

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, 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 radical shift? One word: focus.

Today, IBM is a hybrid cloud and A.I. company. While we will remain an intellectual property powerhouse with one of the strongest U.S. 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 A.I., 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 longstanding 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–A.I., cloud, security, semiconductors, and quantum computing–innovating requires deep focus. These fields are so dynamic and complex, that we need more hands on deck for each breakthrough.

Increasingly, 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 of 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 give access to these pioneering quantum computers through 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 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 U.S.

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. 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. However, our experience suggests a few goalposts that can help us do so in this new era.

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 in terms of patent numbers or even R&D dollars, progress will become obvious as the life-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 given technology–not just how many patents were issued while building it.

Darío Gil, Ph.D., is IBM’s SVP and the director of IBM Research.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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