HP Labs director sharpens focus on results

Outlines direction for R&D, explains how HP Labs came to develop medical microneedle

Prith Banerjee is settling into his new job as director of HP Labs, the research division of HP in Palo Alto, Calif. Banerjee, 46, comes to HP from the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he was dean of the College of Engineering. He replaces Dick Lampman, who retired after 35 years with HP.

Among Banerjee's plans is to reorganize HP Labs to improve its focus on research most likely to yield new HP products. Joining a group of HP Labs researchers will be those from within other HP business units, and the staff will each year drop 20 percent of projects that are the least promising and reassign those workers to more important projects. Banerjee, who started August 1, spoke with senior writer Robert Mullins about his plans for HP Labs, collaboration with university research and the impact of globalisation on research. Here is an edited transcript of that interview:

What is the purpose of having business-unit people working alongside HP Labs researchers to determine which projects should be continued?

As these individuals work together, essentially a very engaging conversation has evolved. This is going to continue. Some of them will be involved in reviews of current projects, so that they can say these projects are small, they're not quite relevant and help us in identifying which projects should be let go of once a year. Then this similar group will help us in identifying the larger collaborative teams.

HP Labs previously developed a patch to deliver medicine through the skin, like a nicotine patch, and licensed it to an Irish company called Crospon to commercialize. How did a project like this, without an obvious connection to computer research, come about?

HP Labs by design works on problems related and relevant to the business units, but also on areas that are emerging or disruptive technologies. Fundamentally, the technology that was used for the medicine patch was microneedle technology. When you look at a printer head, the advanced printers have lots of micronozzles. So our lab people have perfected how you can take these micronozzles and produce a very fine and controlled way of injecting ink. They essentially took that same technology and said, "You know what? Here is another very cool application. We could use the same inkjet printing technology for drug delivery." That is a classic example of how researchers, when they can think of wild things, can come up with wild, imaginative ideas.

What is the impact of globalisation on HP Labs where, increasingly, companies such as HP compete with companies and research labs around the world?

The world is becoming more global, and there is a lot of fantastic talent available across the world. HP is a global company with business in 170 countries, so we need to make sure that we do research that is relevant to the entire world, not just the U.S. We have opened HP Labs in India, China, Japan, Russia and other places, and the reason is not because of cheap labor. When manufacturing moves to China, it's because of cheap labor, but when HP Labs moved to China, it was to tap into talent in China that would not be available to HP Labs in Palo Alto. These researchers in China are working on problems that are relevant to China. The people working in Japan are working on problems that are relevant or appealing to Japanese customers.

You also say you'll bring to HP Labs a concept you call "open innovation." What does that involve?

It recognizes that not all the smart people work for HP and not all the smart ideas come from HP labs. We will collaborate with university researchers worldwide on problems that are relevant to HP Labs. We will be able to leverage this one-third of our research portfolio, the basic research, and do a lot more collaboration with our academic researchers.

Is this approach new to HP Labs?

Every company has a different approach. Previously, HP Labs funded other university research - $5 million total last year. A university researcher would write a proposal, and the company would fund the researcher's pet project even if it didn't apply to what HP Labs was working on. Now we will fund university research in areas of HP research. We will solicit proposals from universities to contribute to those missing holes in those large collaborative research projects. That is a key change. I don't know of any company that will fund university research with this particular model.

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