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IBM may be throwing a life raft to the stock market today, reporting unexpectedly high quarterly earnings. Still, startups and venture capitalists may care more about the ideas floating at Big Blue’s annual research crowdsourcing event, dubbed IBM Innovation Jam 2008.

IBM has been sponsoring the Innovation Jam for a few years now. The company’s researchers, employees and outside experts are invited to join in a virtual brainstorm session. They post their ideas for innovations and then others join in, commenting on the posts and voting for their favorites.

The event taps into the idea behind James Surowiecki’s 2004 bestselling book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” and the more recent “Crowdsourcing” book by Wired contritubing writer Jeff Howe. Both discuss how the collective instincts of crowds often turn out to be right and encourage companies to harness the power of mass collaboration systems like the Internet to solve difficult problems.

IBM started the Innovation Jam in 2001, subscribing to the belief that public discussion of research ideas could solve problems faster than IBM’s own researchers tackling them secretly. In 2006, the company invested more than $100 million in ideas, and created 10 new divisions spawned during the proceedings.

This week’s event had nearly 55,000 participants from IBM registered and another 5,200 outsiders. Participants sign a waiver that turns all ideas expressed into public intellectual property. The winning ideas can get funding, but, in contrast to InnoCentive started (and now spun off) by Eli Lilly, the contributors of the ideas are not rewarded directly. “Web 2.0 comes to the enterprise” solutions, like Innovation Jam are now increasingly common at places such as Hewlett-Packard and other companies.

Ed Bevan, IBM vice president of innovation and market insight, said that this year’s jam was smaller in sheer numbers compared to the 150,000 participants in 2006 because it was more focused on the enterprise.

I logged into the jam session, which took place over 72 hours this week, and was floored by the sheer bulk of information. There were 29,499 posts from more than 84,000 login sessions divided into 2,750 themes and 2,310 threads. That doesn’t include chat sessions, a new feature this year, Bevan said.

Here are some of the most interesting ideas I came across:

— How to get jet fuel from clean coal

— Organizations should move to “intelligent decisioning,” or decisions that benefit from the input of a mass of statistical data

— Using location-based services to improve the global supply chain for products

— How to get companies to trust their employees

— How to make the electrical grid more efficient to fit the design of cities

— Paying customers, rather than having them pay you

— Having a carbon free day

— Establishing an electronic marketplace for retirees

— Exchanging employees between a business and its customers

Bevan said that the company will likely post final reports on the jam by year end. During the next weeks, IBM will start an “insight phase” to figure out how to put the ideas into perspective and what to do with them. Dozens of senior execs will review the clusters of ideas and help eliminate the noise.

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