Insights into Innovation

By Wilson Farrar
ASK Silicon Valley

Innovation is considered a major driver in solving world problems from advancing economic development and improving living standards to preserving the environment.

Understanding then how innovation happens, what drives it and where it comes from becomes more important in the context of solving such problems and in reaching new heights.

As part of a study being conducted by ASK Silicon Valley, I was asked to gain insights into innovation by talking to some of the Bay Area’s most innovative companies.

First on my tour was Hewlett-Packard, one of the oldest and most established technology companies in the world.

Founded in 1939, by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, HP was known for its innovative, try-anything kind of culture. But, one might ask, are they really still innovating today? Have they been able to maintain a culture of innovation through their growth?

In the past, HP was known for test equipment, minicomputers and pocket calculators. Today they are making breakthroughs in clean technology, sustainable cities, and cloud computing.

What I found in talking to CTO’s and HP Fellows surprised me. Not only were their specific advances impressive, but they seemed driven by a passion and desire to make a difference.

The following is a collection of Insights into Innovation featuring interviews with some of HP’s top creative thinkers. Among them are Senior Vice President of Research, and Director of HP Labs Prith Banerjee, HP Senior Fellow Chandrakant Patel, Director of the Social Computing labs Bernardo Huberman, Director of New Business Initiatives at Hewlett-Packard Andrew Bolwell, Vice President and CTO for Hewlett-Packard’s Personal Systems Group Phil McKinney and CTO of HP’s EDS Division Russ Daniels.

We begin the series with Senior Vice President of Research, and Director of HP Labs Prith Banerjee.

At HP Labs, innovation strategy is about placing “Big Bets”

Prith Banerjee, Senior Vice President of Research, and Director of HP Labs.
Prith Banerjee, Senior Vice President of Research, and Director of HP Labs, joined HP more than two and a half years ago bringing with him experiences that would shape the organization’s innovation strategy.

Banerjee came from academia, where he worked with many of the national labs on technology transfer. He also founded several start-up companies.

He said that he learned two major lessons. “First, have enough resources. Second, when you do tech-transfer, transfer the people with the technology.

“When you want to have impact, it’s important to have enough resources: More people from multiple disciplines working together in large collaborative teams, otherwise (only) incremental work goes on.”

In order to practice his principles, Banerjee did something bold. He completely restructured labs. Instead of 150-200 projects, or “Bets”, with 2-3 people per project, he went to just twenty-one “big bets” with much larger teams ranging in size from 10 to 30 people. He adds, “It’s important to focus on a few things and do them well.”

As part of being focused, Banerjee set up a process to transfer the people with the technology. He explains, “Even with the best of intentions, you can’t just throw things over the wall. Tech transfer best happens when you transfer people with the technology.

“HP Labs is about advancing the state of the art and transferring the technologies to the businesses. You have to do both. And you can.”

In order to ensure that these “Big Bets” pay off and are relevant to the business units, while significantly advancing research, they have implemented a portfolio approach to development that includes direct input from the business units.

Decisions on which projects to pursue are guided by a review board that is comprised of technical and business leaders from the business units, as well as from labs.

Banerjee explains, “The twenty-one projects are broken down into groups that mirror the review board. About a third of the portfolio is devoted to exploratory research, state of the art and long term work five to ten years in the future; One third work on advanced development products up to 18 months out; and a third are somewhere in the middle.”

The business units review individual research projects and the portfolio as a whole. By having a say in decisions, they become partly responsible for the outcome, and have more of a vested interest in making the tech transfers successful.

Banerjee pointed to MagCloud as one example of this process. The research was done, but more was needed until it became a real product. So they transferred the people with the project into a revenue-generating business group and by doing so were able to build an entire team that was complementary to the technology and the founders. “You need the initial founders, passionate people, along with the technology.”

The process seems to be working.