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HP Labs banks on R&D reorg benefits

Posted: 19 Mar 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:R&D 

Since joining the company in August, Hewlett-Packard Labs director Prith Banerjee has reorganised the company's storied R&D organisation into 23 labs, each with a new director focused on high-impact projects. He has also put a review structure in place to link HP's business units with the 600-person research division, and he has set up new programs to connect HP Labs to universities and the venture capital community.

Banerjee is getting kudos from around the industry for the reorganisation, announced with much fanfare March 6. The moves should energise and open up the group, which some had seen as too insular and lacking in impact.

However, the bigger challenge for both HP and archrival IBM Corp. is defining the role of the modern computer company. Intel and Advanced Micro Devices will increasingly dictate system-level hardware in their multicore processors while Microsoft and Google will drive the software stack and Internet platform. Squeezed between them, HP needs to carve out its own space to innovate. By all accounts, however, it's off to a good start.

"In general, I think [the HP Labs reorg] is a very positive change," said Bill Dally, chairman of the computer science department at Stanford University, who met with Banerjee recently. "Previously I didn't think HP Labs was appropriately connected outside—to academia—or inside, to its own business units. They were perceived as somewhat insular. They didn't publish much and were seen as something of a black hole."

"I'm impressed; it's a bold change from where they were," said Mark Dean, an IBM fellow who runs IBM's 400-person Almaden Research Center. Banerjee, Dean said, is "well respected and obviously willing to make changes and take risks, which is important in research."

"HP needed to do something to be competitive. You have to find a way to contribute to the corporate success, and you can get caught if you are not ready to adapt," Dean added.

IBM spent Rs.24,476.60 crore ($6.2 billion) in 2007 on what it calls R&D and engineering—an expenditure that has risen steadily at the company over the past five years. By contrast, HP spends just $3.6 billion, a figure that has edged up marginally since 2002, despite the company's revenue rise from $72 billion to $104 billion over that time.

In addition, IBM has maintained its position as the company with the most patents granted each year, while HP has bounced from No. 3 to the fifth and ninth slots during the period.

HP strategy
To turn the tide, Banerjee has directed each of his 20- to 30-person labs to pitch big projects that combine fundamental research and advanced development. The first round of proposals, filed last week, will be reviewed by a board comprising equal numbers of lab researchers, HP business unit managers and technologists from around the company.

The board will meet quarterly and review approved projects annually. A new technology transfer office in HP will help commercialize the labs' work, and a new Website will share some of the group work publicly.

"This represents a huge step for sharpened focus at HP Labs," said Banerjee, an entrepreneur and former dean of the college of engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Our resources remain the same, but we are reallocating them to fewer, bigger bets to improve our return on investment."

"There are a lot of mini transformations going on all over HP, and this is one of them," said Mark Hurd, HP's chairman and CEO, speaking at a March 6 coming-out party for HP Labs.

Banerjee also aims to increase the amount of basic research done at the lab. "We used to do less than 10 percent of our work in blue-sky exploratory research, but that will a third of our work going forward," he said.

"This is one of the places where there is still some real R left in R&D," said Hurd.

The division is also adopting the approach of nearby Sand Hill Road venture capitalists by starting an entrepreneur-in-residence program. Foundation Capital will be the first to base one of its executives at the lab starting later this year.

A new technology transfer office will help researchers assess whether work can be transferred to internal business units or licensed for external use. That could boost projects like Richter, an ultra-sensitive accelerometer developed by the Information and Quantum Systems Lab under veteran nanotechnology researcher Stan Williams.

"In the past, when we got to this advanced development stage, it was a crap shoot getting [a technology] into the market," Williams said.

"We have a lot of structure now to focus on the big problems we can solve to have an impact," said Qian Lin, director of the Multimedia Interaction Lab, which is working on face recognition, among other projects.

"The proposal process is a new thing, and we will have to make bigger bets," said Rob Schreiber, assistant director of HP's Exascale Computing Lab. But "If you don't make bigger bets, big things don't happen," he added.

IBM Research also tries to focus about a third of its work on fundamental science, and it maintains close ties to its internal business units as well as universities and venture capitalists. Like HP, IBM has defined a handful of broad research themes for which it sets "grand challenge" tasks, such as creating a petaflops computer.

Software shift
But "everybody does [things] a little differently," said Dally of Stanford. "The big player these days is Microsoft Research. They are a force to be reckoned with," with big external-funding programs and researchers who publish regularly and show up at technical conferences, Dally said. By contrast, Intel has funded many university projects but has not has as high a profile at conferences or in peer-reviewed journals. As for IBM, "it's a shadow of its former self," Dally said. "Their work has become much more applied research, and you see less publishing from them."

Apple, meanwhile, has carved out a unique space with its iPods and iPhones, but the company largely popularizes the good R&D done elsewhere in multitouch displays and basic wireless and digital media technologies. "It's very rare now that any company in the computer industry can control something end to end, so research really requires collaboration," said Joel West, an associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at San Jose State University and co-author of a book on collaborative innovation.

West noted that HP inadvertently gave birth to the PC industry when one of its employees, Steve Wozniak, left the company to help found Apple because his inventions had no place inside HP.

Today, Google is a poster child for open innovation, especially inside the organization. Though the search-engine giant has only 120 full-time researchers, it encourages all employees to spend time on pet projects of interest.

"Most companies have a mix of open and closed innovation, the latter one being their secret sauce," said West.

Just what HP's secret sauce will be remains to be seen. At its March 6 event, Shane Robison, chief strategy and technology officer, suggested in a visionary talk that the future is all about software and services, not desktops and printers.

"Today we are at a stage where the Internet is pervasive as a platform and software developers can target it for the broadest distribution of their work," Robison said. "Increasingly, we are presenting our technologies as services."

Many of the lab projects HP showcased at its event were software innovations. But the company still has plenty of active hardware projects.

"If we can develop integrated CMOS photonics, their low-power and high-bandwidth capabilities could be applied to many-core processors that could remove some of the communications and synchronisation bottlenecks that are a big problem in parallel computing," said HP's Schreiber. His lab is doing such work with colleagues in the lab of nanotechnology researcher Williams.

A year ago, HP jumped into the search for new and better parallel-programming techniques, Schreiber said. The company is now working on transaction processing—new ways to take advantage of processors with different kinds of cores and new, low-level software constructs.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times





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