Prith Banerjee is not a man who likes to waste time. At 47, the new director of HP Labs has already founded two companies, published hundreds of papers, received several patents and has been honored by three of the IT industry's most prestigious technical societies.
So it wasn't surprising when, just days after he joined HP in August, he plunged into an ambitious project involving 120 people worldwide to develop a new strategic plan for the lab. That plan is to begin rolling out in November.
"I want HP Labs to do more research that impacts people and society, and I want to see this transferred to HP businesses," Banerjee says.
Banerjee, who plays the sitar for relaxation, has not had much time for his instrument lately. In the interview below, the former dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago talks about what lured him away from academia to tackle the challenges faced by HP Labs and why he believes open innovation is essential for the future. He also shares some personal reflections about his proudest accomplishments, his key influences and his first invention.
I've been meeting with researchers in their cubicles, just getting to know them one-on-one and learning more about their work. There's tremendous excitement among the researchers and I'm happy to be part of it.
One challenge I'm facing is finding the right balance between short-term and long-term research. That doesn't mean I want to swing the pendulum way towards short term, because then you run the risk of not being able to create really new business opportunities in the future.
Fortunately, we have a true breadth of experience in researchers. As a company, HP is in a wide range of products and services – you name an area – and there is an expert in HP Labs who knows a lot about it. So the opportunity is that talent exists, and the challenge is how do you get all the right talent to work together on larger collaborative projects, so that you can do high-impact research.
But with open innovation comes open output as well. I'd like to bring some startup DNA into HP Labs, so if there isn't a place in an HP business for an innovation, researchers can start a company or HP can license the technology.
It's better to do that than keep technologies hidden inside HP Labs. As long as the research done within HP Labs ultimately benefits society, you have done something, right? Society benefits and HP as a company would get some licensing revenue or some equity share in a company.
People will need to explain in their research proposal what the possible impact could be – some rough estimate of the size of the market, how much they think HP will have to invest to bring that research to market, and what the predicted return on investment might be.
So one way we'll decide whether to fund projects is to determine if they can have a big impact. I want HP Labs to work on big-time, risky projects. Not all of these will succeed, but if there are a few home runs, that would create enormous value for HP.
It's really the challenge that attracted me. I am here to impact the way HP Labs operates, and as you can see, I literally hit the ground running. I need not have started strategic plan in the tenth day of my stay here. But I got attracted because of the challenge of making an impact in a truly world-class research organization.
It was one of those large, collaborative projects funded by DARPA at Northwestern. As part of that, I graduated about six PhD students from that project itself. I've got at least 20 publications from that one project and I received two patents for the work. The technology was eventually licensed to AccelChip, a startup I founded. AccelChip created a product, and then was acquired by Xilinx in 2006. Now some 20,000 customers of Xilinx use the AccelChip tool.
The key technology was translating MATlab programs so they could be compiled into hardware. People said it couldn't be done, so it was a very interesting problem impacting a large market.
It is difficult on your family, too. The founder sets the pace for the company. Unless you are willing to put in those long hours, the people following you will not put in long hours. There were times when my wife and family wanted to go to a social gathering and instead I went to the office on a Sunday. I could have easily telecommuted, but I made it a point to show up because if I showed up, everybody else would show up.
I remember one day at AccelChip when the air conditioner broke down. It was the middle of summer, very hot, and the air conditioner was broken. So I told my people, "Hang in there. I'll be right back." I went to Target, bought four or five fans and lugged them all the stairs myself. It was just a little thing, but it's important to show you care for your people.
I think having a sense of community in a company is important so people feel it is more than just a place to work. That can help you attract and retain employees long-term.
I was also lucky enough to have a sort of mentor – my older brother – who was also interested in these things. As it turns out, he and I have had very similar careers. He also has a PhD in electrical engineering. He is now a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also director of the university's microelectronics center.
Coincidentally, we not only have parallel careers – we also have very similar academic records. We both went to the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. We both did our PhDs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and we both ended up in academia.
I used to read popular science magazines and articles, and so I wanted to attack a real problem we had at home. I forget the details, but we had some issue about water flowing and clogging in our pipes in our home, and we wanted to measure it. My device worked so I submitted it as a science project and it won.
My favorite musician is Nikhil Banerjee (no relation to Prith, Banerjee was one of India's most prominent sitar players of the 20th century). Ravi Shankar popularized that instrument, but technically Banerjee is superior.
I got started playing the sitar because of my father. He used to play, and we had an old sitar at home. We all used to listen to classical music, and one day I saw that old sitar and thought, "I want to learn to play that." My father was my first teacher.
When you're playing Beethoven or Mozart or other classical western music, you just try to play the music following the script you've been given. But Indian music, by design, allows you more freedom. There is a structure, but you can take some exits or do something else and then come back to it. So essentially, you are composing music on the fly.
I think a mathematical background allows you to understand the ‘structure’ of that music – in Indian music it's called the raga. You have to stay within the structure, but then you can play variations on that.