IBM Research Launches South Africa Lab

IBM opened a new research lab in South Africa--its second IBM Research lab in Africa--to focus on health care, urban ecosystems and astronomy.

IBM big data

IBM Research officially opened a new lab in South Africa—Big Blue's second research lab in Africa—to focus on health care, digital urban ecosystems and astronomy, among other key issues.

The new lab, based at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, employs researchers in a variety of disciplines, including math, computational biology, robotics, genomics, machine learning and computer science.

IBM said its scientists will apply their expertise to help address some of South Africa's health care concerns, such as outbreaks of communicable diseases and cancer prevention using cognitive computing, the internet of things (IoT) and big data to help with analyses.

"South Africa is a tremendous growth and transformation story, yet its increasing population and healthcare delivery shortfalls continue to pose challenges in the country," said Solomon Assefa, director of IBM Research – Africa, in a statement. "With the ability to detect patterns and discover new correlations, cognitive and cloud computing and the internet of things can provide potential solutions."

The new IBM Research facility in South Africa is a good example of the ways in which the company pursues projects that are germane to local communities and also have commercial potential, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

IBM announced its intent to open a new lab in South Africa last year and made good on the promise in just a year. IBM opened its first African research lab in Nairobi in 2013.

The company values its research arm, spending an average of around $6 billion a year on research and development. Last year, IBM spent $5.247 billion on research and $5.437 billion in 2014. IBM's research, development and engineering (RD&E) expense was 6.4 percent of revenue in 2015 and 5.9 percent of revenue in 2014. IBM spent $6.23 billion on research in 2013 and $6.3 billion in 2012. The company has 12 research labs on six continents, including three in the United States.

"The lab's three key focus areas will provide wide-ranging opportunities for academic and industry partnerships while addressing South Africa's biggest challenges: data driven healthcare, digital urban ecosystems and exploring the universe," Assefa said in a blog post. "About a dozen projects are already underway ranging from tuberculosis tracking, traffic optimization, wildfire risk assessment, and even a partnership with NASA to analyze millions of radio signals from outer space to detect terrestrial interference."

Indeed, IBM scientists at the South Africa lab are working with the World Health Organization's End TB (Tuberculosis) Strategy by creating wearable IoT sensors to study the spread of TB and other communicable diseases. In addition, IBM is applying cognitive technology to cancer research and prevention. And as part of a proof-of-concept project, IBM found a molecular link between genes that cause cancer and genes associated with cancer metastasis.

Other cancer research shows IBM applying data from South Africa's National Cancer Registry and working with the University of Witwatersrand Medical School to use cognitive technology to project cancer statistics in South Africa. IBM said this collaboration is expected to reduce a five-year time lag in cancer statistics reporting to real time.