HP’s Running man
Prith Banerjee discusses collaborating with universities, his startup experiences,
and Hewlett-Packard Lab’s approach to research and development.
In 2007, AFteR spending 20-plus years in academia, founding two successful companies, and being honored by some of the industry’s most prestigious
technical societies, Prith Banerjee
turned his considerable energies to the
world of corporate research. Here, the
director of Hewlett-Packard Labs talks
about how to balance scientific and
business goals, collaborate with university researchers, and inspire people
to think big.
When you joined HP Labs, you under-
took a fairly ambitious reorganization.
Can you describe your new approach?
Our approach is focused on several themes. One is to work on what
we call high-impact research, or “big
bets.” In the past, we used to have 150
smaller projects. Each was interesting, but none had the chance to move
the needle for HP. Now we focus our
energies on about 20 big bet projects.
These projects are simultaneously trying to advance the state of the art—to
do something that the world doesn’t
know how to do today—and to have a
significant business impact for HP.
You’ve also organized your research
around eight key topics, such as ana-
lytics, immersive interaction, informa-
tion management, and so on.
In the ideal world of academic purity, each researcher does whatever they
want and you hope for the best. But our
approach has been an approach of focus, and that’s really paid off.
Many people have begun to question
the role of the corporate research lab in
an era of low-cost communication and
shrinking profit margins.
HP invests a lot in R&D, but much
of the research is done in the various
product divisions. Our role is to look
beyond that and provide the company
with opportunities that will be interesting in three, five, 10, 15 years. One-third
of our research is devoted to fairly basic
fundamental science. One-third of our
research is related to a product. The
third area is applied research, which is
somewhere in between.
You’ve also made a big push toward
open innovation with your annual In-
novation Research Awards.
Working with academia is something many companies do, so that part
is not new. The novelty of the HP approach is the specific way we sought
alignment with our academic colleagues. Most companies fund research
in academia with so-called random acts
of charity—they don’t tell you what research to do. In a way it’s good, because
they want you to be completely independent. The trouble is, that research is
hardly relevant to the company.
Instead, you solicit ideas for collab-
orative projects based upon your eight
research themes and your 20 big bet
We channel our funding into activities that, after a lot of thought, we
have decided to invest in. Then we tell
our university colleagues, “These are
very hard and important problems,
and we need your help.” Each grant
is somewhere on the order of $75,000
to $100,000 per year for a duration of
three years. [ContinUeD on p. 119]