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We will pursue research that truly advances the state of the art - Prith Banerjee
By Jamie Beckett, March 2008

HP Labs is 42 years old this year. But that doesn't mean it can't act like a startup.

Under new leadership, the research laboratory is transforming itself into an edgier, more entrepreneurial organization with a sharper focus on big ideas. The goal: to tackle the technology industry’s most complex problems and push the frontiers of fundamental science.

"We will pursue research that truly advances the state of the art," says Director Prith Banerjee.

 

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Fewer, more ambitious projects

Banerjee, who took the reins in August 2007, says a reenergized HP Labs will do more high-impact research, turn more of its technologies into successful businesses and collaborate with universities, venture capitalists, customers and others to amplify the work of its 600 researchers.

The lab is shifting its resources from some 150 smaller projects to fewer "big bets" that aim to solve pressing customer problems or advance scientific knowledge.

"In the past, HP Labs took the approach of 'let 1,000 flowers bloom’, " he says." The trouble with that approach is that not enough resources were allocated to any particular research area."

Major research areas

 

The request for proposals will be published soon, and proposals will be invited to address various research topics in each of the following areas:

"I want researchers to feel empowered to propose bold, new initiatives, and to encourage risk taking," Banerjee says.

Researchers will submit proposals for these initiatives to review boards comprised of lab directors, technical contributors and representatives from HP business units.

HP Labs will shift some of its existing research portfolio from applied research (tied to a specific application area) to distribute investments evenly among exploratory research, applied research and advanced product development (targeted to enhancing an existing product).
 
To help foster a startup atmosphere, HP Labs has streamlined its structure and shifted people into smaller, more agile and more focused teams organized into 23 labs instead of 12, as in the past. Research will be spread across seven worldwide sites.

 

Collaboration essential

 

A key aspect of the new strategy is the creation of the Open Innovation Office to pursue and coordinate research collaborations with top scientists and entrepreneurs in government, academia and business around the world. Although HP has long funded university projects, Banerjee says these were not always well aligned with the rest of the company's research.

HP Labs will issue a call for proposals to universities worldwide, inviting participation in joint research with leading Labs scientists. Some of the graduate students working on these joint research projects will be awarded HP internships.

At the same time, the lab is increasing the overall number of internships offered annually.

Banerjee says he plans to recruit "the best and brightest" of its interns for regular jobs, with a focus on candidates who have "an entrepreneurial streak."

 

Speedier technology transfer

 

The ultimate goal is to turn research into business opportunities – for HP, of course, but also by licensing intellectual property to others or even by working with venture capitalists to spin off research into new companies. Although the lab has a good record of technology transfer, the new strategy aims to speed the process and make it easier.

One way that will happen is via the new HP IdeaLab – a Web site that gives users a chance to try out and even shape future technologies.

HP Labs is also launching the Technology Transfer Office, charged with speeding the transfer of research into products and services. As part of this, the lab is establishing an entrepreneur in residence program to give venture capitalists early access to Labs research. The program also would give HP insight into emerging market trends and business opportunities.

"This is truly a transformation of HP Labs," Banerjee says. "It's a change in how ideas are created, how research is conducted and how research projects go from the lab to the marketplace."

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