IBM is in global expansion mode for an internal employee incubator that was first launched in Markham, Ontario in 2018. The company is currently in the process of launching the incubators at eight global IBM software development labs spanning the United States, China, India, Germany, and Poland.
“The whole point was to drive…transformation in a large corporation…like IBM, and still innovate as if you were a startup.”
Area631, as it is called, is a three-month program for IBM employees that offers a startup-like experience to develop ideas and create prototypes. The initial incubator was created and runs out of the IBM Canada Lab located in Markham. It was first developed by Steven Astorino, VP of development for IBM data and AI, and director of its Canada Lab.
BetaKit recently spoke to Astorino about his idea to launch Area631 and how IBM adopted the idea and decided to export it around the world.
Area631 came about after Astorino became the Canada Lab director at IBM, making him responsible for all IBM Lab locations across Canada.
“I was really trying to understand, ‘okay, how can we do this better? How can we collaborate better, or more importantly, how do we innovate better and come up with some great things that we can try and transform and disrupt the market,’” said Astorino.
From this idea, Astorino developed Area631. The name itself represents exactly what the program is: six “IBMers” working for three months on one breakthrough. Through the internal incubator, IBM gives employees the opportunity to submit ideas and then if they are chosen, work on those ideas to create prototypes. The employees are given the three months, full time, to work on the idea with the small team.
“The whole point was to drive … transformation in a large corporation, large company like IBM, and still innovate as if you were a startup. That was really the intent behind it,” Astorino noted to BetaKit.
According to IBM, the first project that came out of Markham’s Area631 became the catalyst for Watson AIOps (which stands for artificial intelligence for IT operations). Watson AIOps has since become a product that IBM sells to IT operations teams in order to help them respond more quickly to slowdowns and outages.
“I would say that was a huge success.”
“[Watson AIOps is] a significant business opportunity for IBM [and] we invested an entire business unit in that after the Area 631 project was completed,” Astorino told BetaKit. “So I would say that was a huge success.”
While Area631 is focused on offering startup-esque opportunities to IBM employees, the Markham incubator has also worked with local innovation hub VentureLAB on projects. Based out of Markham, VentureLAB touts itself as the leading technology hub in York Region.
In 2017, IBM and VentureLAB partnered as part of the IBM Innovation Incubator Project, launching an innovation hub meant to bring together developers, startups, entrepreneurs, and other ecosystem players. Astorino was also recently named to VentureLAB’s board of directors.
For one of the Area631 projects, an IBM team worked with SIËSDE Dispute Resolution Technologies, a Markham-based legal tech startup that took part in the VentureLAB and IBM hub. The company and Area631 team worked on a project to deploy IBM cloud services.
Astorino told BetaKit while the internal incubator is focused on IBM employees his eventual goal is to make it more accessible for startups to participate as well. IBM also, notably, runs programs specially tailored for startups, such as the IBM Innovation Incubator Project.
Since launching in Markham in 2018, IBM has expanded the incubator to Ottawa, where Astorino said it collaborates with local universities. IBM is now working to open eight such incubators, which will be located at IBM Data & AI Development Labs around the world.
Of the eight locations, two will be in Canada (Markham and Ottawa) with two in the United States (Boston and San Jose) and the others in India, China, Germany, and Poland.
Image source Minister Mary Ng via Facebook account