Customer Co-innovation

With HP's customers' help, HP Labs researchers are developing the next generation of HP products and services

Prith Banerjee, Senior VP of Research and Director of HP Labs, and Rich Friedrich,
Director of Strategic Innovation and Research Services at HP Labs.

By Simon Firth

Every year several hundred of HP's largest customers visit HP Labs to hear its vision of the future.

Until recently, though, says Senior VP of Research and Director of HP Labs, Prith Banerjee, "we'd show them our most blazingly cool stuff, and they'd say, 'Oh I really want this.' And we'd have to say 'Sorry, you can only buy from HP's current products and services.'

That's no longer always the case, however. Under a new program that's recently been formalized, HP Labs is now working directly with some of its most forward-thinking customers to jointly innovate the next generation of HP products and services.

A number of projects are already in progress, tackling challenges as diverse as product personalization in the financial services sector, safety in the health care industry and using data analysis to gauge customer sentiment in consumer product markets.

"We call it Customer Co-innovation," says Banerjee. "Essentially, it's another innovation methodology for doing our job, which is to turn research ideas into reality."

Collaboration fosters accelerated technology transfer

Working directly to apply research results with customers is not an entirely new concept for HP.

The company's approach to cloud computing, for example, was shaped in part by an HP Labs collaboration with animation company DreamWorks. And an ongoing Labs project with Shell Oil is offering a significant proof of concept for CeNSE, HP's new, high-precision sensor network technology.

Those early initiatives were a great success, says Rich Friedrich, Director of Strategic Innovation and Research Services at HP Labs, and the person responsible for leading the Customer Co-innovation Program.

"By co-innovating with our customers in this way," Friedrich explains, "we found we could really get an understanding of what their needs were, so we could fine tune the technology we were offering them. And that gave us a big head start over our competitors. Now we're building new capabilities that no one in the world's ever built before."

Going forward, Friedrich adds, HP Labs will run about a dozen such projects at a time, each lasting up to a year.

Each project must have executive sponsorship from both the customer and a customer-facing business unit within HP. Both are typically delighted to be involved, Friedrich reports.

"There's no guarantee that there will be a project or service at the end, because we're not a product or a service group," he explains, "but typically these things do tend to accelerate technology transfer and that's something our largest customers get really excited about."

Free flow of ideas

Customer Co-innovation is one aspect of HP Labs' multi-faceted commitment to Open Innovation, notes Banerjee.

"Open Innovation recognizes that there are a lot of very creative ideas and smart people outside your organization," he says, "and it greatly benefits you to have a really porous wall through which externally-generated ideas can come in, and through which our own ideas can go out."

In pursuit of Open Innovation, HP Labs has been working with academic researchers for the last four years via its Innovation Research Program (IRP) initiative. This global program supports researchers in some of the world's best technical universities. All the projects funded are relevant to HP Lab's 24 major 'big bet' research projects, allowing the lab to broaden the number of researchers working on its main areas of interest.

"If you think about the innovation pipeline," adds Friedrich, "the IRP feeds into the very early stages. Next, though, you want to solve a particular problem with this general set of technologies that you've developed."

Customer Co-innovation offers one very powerful route to do that.

"It lets us ask, for example, how an idea would play out in the financial services market place," Friedrich says. "Or how about in e-government, or healthcare, or in manufacturing? It's a huge opportunity that you could never get in a university setting, and not even within an industrial research lab without access to a customer's very particular experience, domain knowledge and business data."

Innovating in real-world conditions

Being able to use real world data sets is highly attractive for HP Labs researchers. With access to more realistic data, in real-world volumes and contexts, they're much better able to determine both the technical and business feasibility of their research.

And it means they're more likely to have a powerful real world impact.

One Customer Co-innovation project currently underway, for example, is investigating how HP innovations in 3D displays might be used in the healthcare field.

"Tens of thousands of patients die every year in US hospitals because there was a mistake made somewhere," notes Friedrich. "So we're seeing if technologies that we'd developed for the entertainment industry could be used for health care training and visualization to minimize errors."

Co-Innovation results in competitive advantage for HP customers

If Customer Co-innovation helps HP create products and services that its customers are more likely to find useful and thus pay for, those customers also gain from the collaboration.

They get to learn about new technologies long before their competitors and to understand how those innovations might impact their business in the future. And by co-innovating, they have a chance to influence how those technologies are developed into product and service offerings.

"The customers that we're co-innovating with have innovation as a high priority," adds Friedrich. "They have their own research that this fits into, so it's a win-win for both them and HP."

A new conduit for research

The first set of formal HP Labs Customer Co-innovation projects will wrap up by the end of the year. While it's too early to share the results of any specific collaborations, Banerjee reports that the program has already inspired enthusiasm among both customers and HP's own business units.

Most industrial research labs work only with their business unit partners to bring their innovations ideas to market, he notes. That will continue to be the principal conduit for HP Labs innovations, too.

"But our overall aim is to create innovative products and services to make an impact to our customers," Banerjee says. "And the Customer Co-innovation program offers us another unique, innovative, exciting and really impactful way to do that."