EMC Opens Research Arm in Cambridge, Joins MIT Media Lab as Sponsor

6/24/09Follow @bbuderi

EMC has joined the growing ranks of major information technology companies boosting their R&D presence in Kendall Square, creating EMC Research Cambridge, a small research arm near MIT. It has already moved the headquarters of RSA Laboratories to the new outpost, and has signed on as a corporate sponsor of the MIT Media Lab. The company made the announcements today as part of XSITE, the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, where EMC senior vice president and chief technology officer Jeff Nick is taking part in a keynote session called Investing in Innovation.

But while the EMC move in some senses follows on the heels of Google and Microsoft, both of which have set up shop in Kendall Square in the past couple of years, the company says it has had an R&D presence in Cambridge for at least a decade, and has long worked with Boston area universities and startups on a variety of efforts. Now, EMC says, it is not only moving closer to the action and deepening ongoing relationships and initiatives, but also prototyping a different model of research and advanced development.

Only a few researchers will be permanently housed in the new lab. Instead, the company plans to rotate through a series of staff members on a regular basis—not just researchers and engineers, but also representatives from various business divisions—with the aim of coupling staff members closer to the leading edge of technology on several fronts. EMC Research Cambridge will also link into the existing EMC Innovation Network, which ties the company’s research and advanced technology groups and university partners around the world into collaborations that include the company’s research arm in China, its Santa Clara (CA) Incubation Lab, and other groups.

In this way, the Cambridge lab represents a model of how to extend research by utilizing existing resources in more effective ways, not adding staff, says Burt Kaliski, director of the EMC Innovation Network, which is part of the CTO’s office. “In the world we operate in today, the Web 2.0, globalized world, we’re looking for ways to leverage the potential that exists inside and outside the company to make us a more effective company and understand technology trends that are driving and disrupting information infrastructures,” Kaliski says. “Because we are a virtual team, we’ll have touch points in many areas.”

The director of EMC Research Cambridge is Rob Masson, a five-year veteran of EMC who has spent the last two years in the Advanced Technology Ventures group (also in the CTO’s office). I met with him and Kaliski in the new lab, at 11 Cambridge Center in Kendall Square. (VMware, in which EMC owns a majority stake, also has an R&D lab a short walk from EMC Research Cambridge.) They explained that EMC as a company tries to collaborate operationally across its business divisions—and that the new research lab is designed to enhance that with more future-oriented activities.

Masson will be the only full-time member of EMC Research Cambridge, not counting the three researchers from RSA Labs, who were previously in Bedford, MA, and are now part of the new research arm. The rest of the team, including distinguished engineers, technologists, and strategic leadership personnel from EMC’s business divisions, is mostly virtual—members have committed to devoting at least one day a month to the lab, at least virtually. However, says Masson, “Our virtual team has to be physical at times.” He notes, for instance, that the Media Lab’s sponsor week would be a great time for in-person meetings, and that, like virtually every R&D lab, the facility will host lectures or briefings for staff members, and potentially non-EMC personnel as well, to encourage people to come in.

For his part, Kaliski notes that many of the participants in the new lab likely already have responsibility for pursuing a long-term R&D vision for their business divisions. Taking part in the new research lab, he says, “is a new way of fulfilling their responsibility.”

In addition to exploring the future in technology areas such as storage, content management, security, cloud computing, and so on, the new research arm will be looking at how those technologies fit into fast-changing, information-intensive markets like health care, banking, energy, and finance. For example, “The impact of the cloud cuts across all of these elements of technology, as well as all the verticals,” Kaliski says. Other trends are mobility, collaboration or social computing, and governance, risk, and compliance , he says.

The centerpiece of the research group’s activity will be the new sponsorship arrangement with the Media Lab. “That will give us a place to go, a set of people to interact with,” says Kaliski. Initial research collaborations between the two will focus on new models for owning and using data; innovative interfaces for social and business transactions; and technologies to help consumers better manage their own health care. One specific project EMC will work with is the New Deal on Data effort that is part of Media Lab professor Sandy Pentland’s Living Labs program.

The Media Lab was also enthusiastic about the new arrangement. “By collaborating with leading technology companies like EMC, the Media Lab can invent new possibilities for creating, collecting and using information that empower users and bring a wealth of benefits to people’s digital lives and communities,” said lab associate director Andrew Lippman in a statement.

EMC Research Cambridge will also be exploring other projects at MIT, in areas such as the digital archiving of scientific research, where massive amounts of data are being accumulated, often in incompatible or hard-to-access formats, Kaliski says. In addition, the group plans to work with other universities and startups in the Boston area, he says.

At the end of the day, the lab is a beachhead for getting senior engineers, technologists, and strategists from different EMC product groups better connected to future trends and technologies, Kaliski says. If something promising comes up, he says, executives can quickly decide whether to help speed its adoption inside the company, license it, or even form a spinout company to help advance its commercialization.

Finally, Kaliski says that the Cambridge research arm could become a model for opening similar labs in other key clusters around the world. It offers, he says, a way to “leverage a strong local presence on a global level.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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