Ex-Xerox CTO Vandebroek Named Chief Operating Officer of IBM Research

When I last spoke to Sophie Vandebroek in December, it was for a kind of exit interview as she prepared to leave her longtime job as Xerox’s CTO and head of its worldwide research organization. We went over highlights of her Xerox tenure, her outlook on key technology trends for 2017 and beyond—the Internet of Everything, cognitive computing, healthcare IT, and cybersecurity chief among them—and her own plans for the future.

Re that last point—she seemed completely unsure. At the time, Vandebroek, a native of Belgium, had bought a one-way ticket to Europe to see family members and said she wasn’t sure when she was coming back or what she would be doing next.

Now after barely a month, I can report that she has just taken a plum job as chief operating officer of IBM Research, Big Blue’s famed global research organization. “My role includes being responsible for the IBM Research strategy, including the annual Global Technology Outlook IBM creates, as well as for the operations of the 12 research Labs around the globe,” Vandebroek wrote me in an e-mail.

In a sense, she is going back to her roots. Vandebroek started her career at IBM Research after earning her PhD in electrical engineering from Cornell University in 1990. Here is an excerpt from what she told IBM’s research community last Thursday in a global webcast:

“I am so, so lucky to rejoin IBM at such an exciting time in history. The next 5 to 10 years will be totally amazing as cognitive technologies and the IoE [Internet of Everything] become ubiquitous and result in personalized healthcare, access to personalized education, security, financial inclusion for all, environmentally friendly cities, and more. IBM’s technologies will make a positive difference in the lives of billions of people.”

It seems clear from the reference to billions of people that Vandebroek relishes the chance to help make a greater impact than was possible at Xerox. IBM’s annual revenues in 2015 (the last full year reported) were $81.7 billion, compared to about $18 billion for Xerox. The difference in the size and scope of the research groups is along the same lines, with IBM Research about five times bigger than Xerox’s research arm, depending on how you count, she says. IBM Research has 12 main labs worldwide, compared to Xerox’s five. Moreover, Xerox’s labs are smaller than IBM’s. (Note: I am talking about the pre-2017 Xerox. Things are different now that as of Jan. 1, the company has split into two, with the mainstay printing and management services business continuing as Xerox and its business process outsourcing operation, which handles such areas as healthcare claims and E-ZPass transactions, becoming known as Conduent.)

Vandebroek also emphasized IBM’s reach in an e-mail to me as one of the main reasons for taking the new job. “The business impact of the research attracted me, including IBM’s leadership in cognitive computing (not only for healthcare, but also for security, IoT, education, and more)…blockchain, quantum computing, microelectronics, and more. These technologies, combined with the power of the business groups and global sales teams, truly position IBM to win and impact the world,” she said.

She also cited IBM’s scientific excellence, “as reflected in the numerous scientific papers, the huge number of patents, and the significant recognition received by researchers around the globe. Finally, also very attractive is IBM’s inclusive and diverse culture. I know that to be great innovators requires us to bring not only our intellect to work but also our hearts, allowing all of us to be ourselves no matter our scientific backgrounds, the languages we speak, our gender or gender identity, our physical abilities or sexual orientation, or ethnic backgrounds, whether we are any boomers or millennials,” she wrote.

In our Xerox exit interview, Vandebroek cited her intention to spend more time in Boston than she did in her globe-trotting Xerox role. Whether that will be possible in her new job seems a bit up in the air—but it might well be. Vandebroek will be visiting all IBM’s research labs, she says, and will spend a fair bit of time in Yorktown Heights, NY, the research group’s headquarters. But she will also have an office at 75/125 Binney Street in Cambridge, the new home to IBM’s local research lab, as well as IBM Watson operations for healthcare, cybersecurity, and other areas. “It’s a global role with a lot of travel, but I plan to make the newer IBM Cambridge lab on Binney Street like my main office,” she wrote. “I am very much looking forward to be at the heart of the thriving Boston innovation ecosystem.”

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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