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Leading Corporate Innovation: HP Labs Director Prith Banerjee (Part 2)

Posted on Thursday, Nov 12th 2009

SM: What did Shane articulate to you regarding HP’s vision? At one point HP was heavy on innovation.

PB: I related that I had seen numerous corporate research labs across the past 30 years. I had sent my graduates to Bell Labs. I had seen how many of the corporate research labs were going through the trade-off of applied research and the short-term business aspect of that research against the need to do long-term, fundamental research. I related to Shane that an organization like HP labs needed to strike a balance and that I would abide by that philosophy if I came to HP Labs.

I also told him that from what I knew of HP Labs, I felt that there could be more benefits obtained if we had larger collaborative teams. That was a successful model in the academic world. Instead of having two graduate students and a principle researcher under a single grant, we had large NSF and DARPA centers with $5 million grants. I saw the transformation that was going on there. That was the transformation that I wanted to see at HP Labs. That resonated with Shane. We just connected and had a high-level vision that was shared.

He did say that change was hard, and it would be difficult. He asked how I would bring about that transformation and I shared some ideas with him. Ultimately I agreed to come here, and I now have the most fantastic job in the world.

SM: What challenges do corporate research labs face today?

PB: In the good old days of Bell Labs, there was a monopoly and they were funded on a percentage of the gross revenue of a monopolistic company. The researchers at Bell Labs could concentrate at basic research, and they did not have to think about the business elements. In a corporate research lab, if you only do 100% basic, long-term research, the stakeholders of the company must challenge the function of the lab.

On the other hand, if you look at most companies such as HP, which as a whole has a very large R&D budget ($3.5 billion in FY08), there are 30,000 very smart engineers who are working on the next-generation laptop. At HP Labs we only have 500 people. If those 500 people also start working on the short term, then the question becomes, “Why are they doing this at HP Labs? We have a much larger R&D enterprise.”

At either end of the pendulum, if you do 100% basic research, people will ask why you are doing that in the corporate lab versus in academia. But if you did 100% basic applied research that was tied to the next quarter, people would also ask why. The answer is to strike a balance.

What we have done at HP Labs is that we have taken an approach where one-third of our research is focused 10 to 15 years into the future. A third of our work is what we call product development research. That is something relevant to today’s products. That research will show up in 6 to 18 months. The final third of our work is applied research, which is tied to an application, not a product. If we are researching some imaging, it might end up in a printer or laptop display sometime in the next two to four years. I think that is very important. At HP Labs we have a very formal process to fund these projects, some with short-term goals and some with long-term goals.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Leading Corporate Innovation: HP Labs Director Prith Banerjee
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