Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Fast 50 2008: IBM

The streak is still going strong. In 2007, for the fifteenth consecutive year, IBM racked up more U.S. patents than any other company on the planet—3,125 in all. That's a whopping 60 patents per week. Sure, they're a prolific bunch, but also incredibly diverse. After all, the computing and consulting giant has customers in every imaginable industry.

Among the recent breakthroughs: A self-assembly nanotechnology process (seriously) in computer-chip manufacturing that creates vacuums between wires, allowing signals to travel faster while consuming less energy; a tool to predict how an emerging infectious disease, such as bird flu, will mutate, helping drug makers whip up an effective vaccine; and a system that analyzes data from thousands of sensors along New York's Hudson River to gauge its health and forecast changes.

Just as impressive is IBM's relentless pursuit of new ideas. Last year marked the one-year anniversary of InnovationJam, perhaps the best example of how far Big Blue will go to think big. CEO Sam Palmisano wanted to try something different, a modest little brainstorm tapping the company's collective creativity, so he invited more than 300,000 employees as well as tens of thousands of partners and customers to participate. It wound up being the largest online event in company history.

Palmisano's no dummy. He pumped up the jam by agreeing to invest $100 million in the most promising proposals. More than 150,000 IBMers and brainiacs from universities, governments, and corporations in 104 countries logged in for two 72-hour sessions. "We've always thought of ourselves as innovative, but we recognized that the nature of innovation was changing because of technology," says David Yaun, vice president of corporate innovation programs. IBM concluded that twenty-first century innovation is "open, global, multidisciplinary, and collaborative," he says.

Let the ginormous worldwide jam begin. The first session produced 37,000 ideas; the second, held a few weeks later, focused on refining several dozen of the better proposals. Of the 10 projects that Palmisano funded, five were more ambitious takes on existing IBM projects, such as integrating an entire region's transportation system—roads, rails, airports, and bus lines—and optimizing everything based on real-time data. The other five ideas were completely new businesses for IBM, such as creating a one-avatar-fits-all platform for any 3-D virtual world, which could fuel real-world revenue.

More importantly, the event demonstrated that IBM was willing to experiment in a way that few companies its size dare to attempt, much less pull off. It gambled on several emerging businesses without formal requirements or milestones, letting each team set its entrepreneurial course. A year later, eight of the businesses are still in the works (the proposed electronic health record infrastructure, however, is on hold for the time being).

The InnovationJam also gave rise to another unexpected business: similar jams at other companies. IBM now sells the methodology and technology that it created for itself. "Everyone is trying to figure out the Holy Grail of collaborative innovation," says Yaun. " 'How do I tap into the power of my ecosystem?' We have an advanced approach that we think is unique."