Prith Banerjee is senior vice president of research at HP and director of HP Labs. Prior to joining HP he served as the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. He was the founder, chairman, and chief scientist of BINACHIP Inc. In 2000 he founded AccelChip Inc, which was sold to Xilinx in 2006. Prith is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
SM: Let’s start by reviewing your background. Could you set some context for your switch from academia to HP?
PB: I started my career in academia. After getting my PhD from the University of Illinois, I stayed at the university as a professor. I served in academia for 22 years, first at the University of Illinois and later at Northwestern. During those years I did fundamental research work with graduate students and published plenty of papers. One thing that bothered me as a professor of electrical engineering was the technology transfer aspect. My students were creating all of these technologies and were having difficulty in transferring them to real customers and businesses.
I used to send the software that we developed to various companies throughout the world. The companies would say “fantastic,” but the extent of the technology transfer was that technology sitting on a desk somewhere. Nobody really used it.
In 2000 I was involved in a startup that was based on technology created by me and my graduate students at Northwestern. I then learned firsthand what it takes to transfer technology. I learned the mechanics of venture capital, how to write a business plan, and how to hire the right people to build and sell a product. I got the maximum kick out of my life when the first copy of AccelChip software was sold to a customer.
SM: What was the environment around you at Northwestern to help you do that?
PB: Northwestern is located in the heart of Chicago, which is not exactly the hotbed of entrepreneurship. During my years as a professor I had many friends in the Bay Area and had followed the ecosystem around Stanford. Professors there did it routinely, but not at Northwestern. I started the company at the worst time. It was just after the dot-com bust.
I did AccelChip, which was subsequently sold to Xilinx. I came back to Northwestern for a while before moving back to the University of Illinois. I then started a second company, BINACHIP, which is still in existence today. All this time I was having fun in academia and moving up the professional ladder as a department head and later a dean. I was being recruited for some provost positions at other universities when I got a call from HP saying that they were looking for someone to run HP Labs.
My first reaction was that it would not be a good fit even though I felt that they were a great organization. I then had a fantastic meeting with Shane Robinson. I flew over to Palo Alto on a Friday evening for a Saturday morning breakfast meeting. The meeting was scheduled for 30 minutes but it lasted three hours. Shane shared what he was looking for, and we just clicked. I actually turned down a provost position at a very good university to accept my position with HP Labs.