Exclusive Interview: HP Labs Takes Innovative Approach to Corporate Research

image HP’s roots are very technical and accurate.  HP is known for quality products, research, and deep technical talent.  Last week I had a chance to sit down with Prith Banerjee, the Senior Vice President Research and the Director of the new and improved HP Labs and Chandrakant Patel, Director of the Sustainability Lab in Palo Alto.

HP’s research group, known as HP Labs, has historically had sustained investments in core R&D tied to narrow business unit corporate directions.  Mainly the Labs research was predicated by the business units’ challenges and opportunities.  In the past the many breakthroughs in HP Labs have in many ways radically changed the market, but for some reason HP never could tie the story together to get the credit in the mainstream market.

HP as a company is often called the Rodney Dangerfield of the computer industry – they get no respect. The old joke at and around HP is that if they were had to market sushi they would call it “cold dead fish” – it being the most accurate technical description of the product.

That old image is changing.  HP has had renewed vigor since Carly left and with the recent acquisition of EDS HP is a much different company then it was 5 and 10 years ago.  I can tell you first hand.  I spend nine (9) great years of my professional career at HP.  HP has completely changed and is competitive.

Now the change has come to HP Labs.  That is why I was so interested in meeting with the new head of HP Labs and Senior Vice President Prith Banerjee last week for an exclusive interview.  Prith is overseeing the complete overhaul of the HP Labs worldwide research and development teams for HP.

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Corporate research has been the backbone of many innovations that have hit the market.  In the area of rapid technology development and open source many companies have downsized their research.  Traditional corporate research is narrow in its focus and driven by “point technology” initiatives of the companies verses a more macro or holistic market and/or global view.  Many have been saying corporate research has yet to adopt to the changing product and people markets.

Not with the new HP Labs.  They are focused. They have deployed a new research model that is consistent with the market first then the company second.  They are taking a concentrated and collaborative approach to their research.  One that takes a holistic view of big technology problems of the global market then tie it to the objectives of HP corporate mission in that order.  In addition, HP Labs ties their work to external activities with universities, venture capitalists, and other companies.

The big upshot of the new and improved HP Labs is the emphasis on relevance, quality, and speed.  For the first time it appears that HP Labs can bring their authoritative research on relevant big bet areas and match it to the speed of the market.

This is a big and positive change for HP and I see it yielding huge dividends for HP Labs.

I am very impressed with the two year reboot and sharpened focus of HP.  Prith and his team have a swagger about them.

Here is my analysis and opinion of HP Labs after sitting down with Prith Banerjee HP’s leading executive running HP Labs.

Enjoy.

Hybrid Corporate and Global Research Approach

HP Labs is taking a different approach to corporate research.  HP Labs is sharpening its’ focus to meet the demand of global challenges and problems and then having those problems mapped directly to HP corporate vision.  It’s the best of both worlds.

Prith goes on to describe the new HP Labs sharpened focus:

HP Labs, the corporate research arm for Hewlett-Packard, main charter is to look beyond the roadmap of the product divisions.  Two years ago we went through a significant reboot or reset of HP Labs around 3 general directions or themes.

The three themes include:

1) High Impact Research on the most important challenges facing the world and our customers in 20-30 big bet areas verses hundreds of little bets that we focused on in the past,

2) Technology Transfer so that the results that happen within hp labs ends up in the hands of customers.

3) Open Innovation which is the idea to leverage our relationships to collaborate with external agencies, parties, universities, and other companies to amplify what HP Labs does.

Prith’s HP Labs is taking a holistic view.  HP Labs took a step back and said what are the most important problems facing the market and their customers.  This hybrid model integrates hard and important customer problems and combines them with hard to do technologies. As a result HP can realize large emerging growth opportunities.

The main characteristic of Prith’s thesis are that these problems truly require technology advances, and are hard problems to solve.  If HP Labs can crack them they represent large revenue opportunities for HP – billions of dollars to HP.

Prith and his team have spend the past two years finding what those research and problem areas are and spent the time to figure them out – last couple of years.

The Global Research Agenda

HP Labs global research agenda is focused on eight (8) core high impact areas.  These areas represent the companies big bet research areas.  The agenda for HP Labs eight areas include:  1) Commercial Digital Print, 2) Content Transformation, 3) Immersive Interaction, 4) Information Management, 5) Analytics, 6) Cloud, 7) Intelligent Infrastructure, and 8) Sustainability.

“These are our 20-30 big bet projects at HP Labs with sustainability sitting the center of all the research” said Prith.

Here is the breakdown of HP Labs research agenda.

1. Commercial Digital Print – The idea is that commercial print will be digital.  It means every page is different, flexible, print on demand, reduction of waste, and good for the environment.  For this to happen, HP needs to continue to invest in fundamental research in the printing processes and print heads and so on.  Additionally, commercial print automation comes into play that will adopt to the new digital native and hopes to address how to drive pages from a variety of sources from the web and business on to these fast digital printers.

2. Content Transformation – For HP Labs this is about the seamless transformation from world of physical information to the world of digital information – from printed pages to display.  The big trends we are all seeing in the demise of the newspaper and print industries speaks directly to this point, and HP Labs hopes to accelerate the work on displays in taking content from physical world to digital devices and displays.  Another interesting area is automated publishing.  This is taking content from variety of sources to comprehensive display solution – for instance taking pictures uploaded to automatically create albums, photo books, and e-readers – hello Kindle.

image 3. Immersive Interaction - HP is investing heavily into the future of the collaborative and connected consumer and worker.  Imaging the world where the interaction with technology is more intuitive than it is today.  HP Labs areas include seamless collaboration with video bringing on lots of users from multiple locations truly interact in a seamless way.  Imagine a less expensive solution to Cisco’s tele-presence.  We need this now.

4.  Information management - This is more of a current HP business focus in helping companies improve their business processes via IT.  What I find interesting is that with the EDS acquisition this is a very relevant today and into the future.  The world is creating information at tremendous pace – it’s doubling every month.  The big question on any CIO or business leaders mind is how can they manage the information and extract business intelligence from the massive amounts of information being stored.  This area has huge implications for the market and businesses.

5.  Analytics – Again this is very trendy and real time.  Today’s market and future innovation all revolve around data.  Return on Investment (ROI) sits at the heart of any businesses value proposition from advertising to process improvement.  The ability to use deep mathematical insights, scientific methods, software, and tools to drive business decisions requires looking at tons of data.  This isn’t simple math.  This area is ripe for massive innovation and can enable many additional breakthroughs.  Imagine the areas that can benefit such as automating security, analytics for operations, analytics for personalization, among others.

6.  Cloud - We have been covering Cloud and Cloud Collision here at SiliconANGLE since we started the group blog and it’s the most important area in Infrastructure 2.0.  We are seeing the big war develop here most recently Apple and Google going head to head in a Cloud Collision (don’t forget Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon, Rackspace, and other emerging players).

I like this area and think that HP Labs can add a ton of value here with their legacy research.  The Cloud area is evolving fast and we are seeing tremendous business model shift where organizations are moving from owning their IT infrastructure to renting (outsourcing) computing and storage and just pay as you go.  The market is looking for enterprise grade hardware and software platforms and solutions.  This is a nice area for HP.  (Note: I am trying to get more info on this area – HP has committed to get me some meetings to explore more).

I asked Prith how he sees HP Labs research in context to a world where large scale datacenters are becoming more relevant and important (Google, AWS, Rackspace, etc).

Prith’s response: “We see a vision where there will be a service provider service provider.  It’s an opportunity to create a whole new set of disruptive technologies and services out of and on a cloud environment”.

7. Intelligent Infrastructure - This is an obvious area for HP given they are one of the largest IT infrastructure companies developing and selling gear and software for datacenters and IT infrastructure.  For me the question of what’s the future the next generation datacenter, next generation storage, next generation networks and so on needs to be fleshed out.   At SiliconANGLE.com we call this Infrastructure 2.0.

8. Sustainability - I was really impressed with HP’s views here.  This highlights the architecture of their new research model – Prith’s strategic imperative.  Sustainability is HP Labs core principle. With respect to sustainability it is HP Labs goal to embed a sustainable mindset as a guiding principle into all their projects and for this guiding principle to cut across all disciplines and projects across all of HP Labs.

Recently, Prith keynoted at the Design Automation Conference (DAC) in San Francisco talking about sustainability.  At DAC Prith was putting out the notion that IT technologies need to be designed to solve real world carbon footprint challenges.

Prith goes into detail on this core principle of sustainability.  He says that “IT infrastructure accounts for 2% of all carbon emissions and 98% are the rest of the global economy”.

Its not easy being green. Every corporation likes to talk about “being green”, but HP Labs is walking the talk by putting sustainability at the center of all their research projects.  Carbon footprint needs to be saved and core research for corporate companies like HP need to be focused on the environment.

“HP Labs is not only doing work in the 2%, but also building technology that impacts the 98%.  Breakthroughs in IT technologies can play a role in reducing the carbon emission impact.  In order for technology to have an impact on day to day carbon emission, technology breakthroughs must take a lifestyle and lifecycle perspective.  As a simple example telecommuting and collaboration software can reduce the time thus energy away from the day to day emissions” according to Prith.

HP Labs Telegraphs Their Vision – Datacenter Operating System.

Why would HP Labs talk about sustainable datacenters at the Design Automation Conference in San Francisco, an event for designing systems and chips.  Mainly, HP Labs datacenter vision is similar to how systems were designed – think a sort of datacenter operating system. The big vision and opportunity is “Can the future large scale datacenter system take on an innovation cycle similar to Moore’s Law?”  Prith and his team think so.

Prith talked about how the paradigm for systems and board design systems can be applied holistically to designing datacenters.  Prith was putting forth the thesis that the industry can apply control theory and feedback mechanisms to a holistic datacenter design for massive stability and efficiency gains.

HP is hitting a home run here.  They are really on to the future of the datacenter.  Creating an integrated model holistically that breaks down the “old silos” is very compelling and very disruptive.  To do this will require integrating cross functional disciplines in software, hardware, design automation, virtualization, facilities (power and cooling), and so on into one operating environment.  Truly game changing.

According to Prith “designing the datacenter of the future is one that has all the elements programmed to work together using physical, hardware, data, and software elements to run together where power and cooling, autonomous control, virtualization, configuration management are at the center of the technology value proposition.”

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HP Labs has a disruptive vision and a necessary one if the industry is to move to a truly sustainable model for data centers.  In talking with Chandrakant Patel, director of HP Labs Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab who head up this area, he sums up the vision of datacenter design in the future by saying “the future currency will be in Joules and the big winner will be whoever optimizes for power as part of the supply and demand side inside the datacenter operating system.  This is an area we are very focused on and have been for years – it’s very exciting”.

EDS To Execute HP Labs Big Bets

I asked Prith how he sees HP enabling massive change on the deployment equation for datacenter owners and service providers.  According to Prith, the EDS acquisition and team within HP can now deliver on their big bets.

Said Prith:

In the last couple of years as this project has been evolving pre-EDS we would have had some difficulties because HP built silo’s of solutions.  Pre-EDS we weren’t really in the global product solutions business.  With EDS we have 32 EDS fellows and have mapped then on to various HP Labs projects.  As the world is going to the cloud and other new environments the market needs a group to synthesize these markets and technologies. Now we have a solutions focused business model as a company.  We have the fundamental flexible building blocks at the architectural level and product design is being researched with this holistic solution and architecture.”

For example you can collect data every 10 seconds across the entire datacenter operation system where you have sensors in for the IT part, power, and cooling.  You can now use automation to smartly send cooling to areas in the datacenter based upon data.

HP Leadership not just inside HP Labs

Where HP Labs is really changing is how they are working with outside world other research institutions and universities.

HP talks about Open Innovation, but the question is how does the external market of entrepreneurs, researchers, and companies intersect with HP Labs?  HP has implemented an Innovation Research Program (IRP).

The IRP is HP Labs effort to fund external research in tandem with top schools such as Stanford, MIT, Illinois, Berkeley, and overseas in China, Israel, and India.  Last year HP Labs received 450 research proposals and funded 45. This year they received over 300 and funded 60 projects.  These external research projects are not on random project but only in their eight core areas – their 20-30 big bets areas.

Entrepreneurship and Collaboration is Top Priority

Collaboration is top priority for Prith and HP Labs.   Interfacing with external entrepreneurs and developers is not as active as the IRP and university outreach.  However, it’s clearly on Prith’s radar.  They have established a relationship with Foundation Capital where they have shared their priorities and are looking for entrepreneurs that are in ‘research stage pre venture funding” to come into HP Labs to collaborate.

Prith says “we are looking at taking in entrepreneurs on board for a year or so and marry them with deep technology folks with HP Labs and we think good things will happen.  Then possibly the venture capitals might fund them”.

Don’t expect venture funding from HP Labs.  Recently HP has de-emphasized their venture capital arm and HP Labs has no venture capital function.   Prith goes on to say that “it’s not about funding startups technical collaboration is the most important.  There are plenty of places to get money for entrepreneurs”.

My Angle on HP Labs

The biggest improvement to their model is the emphasis on big global market problems that is driving their Labs agenda verses the old model of HP’s business problems driving the agenda.  This is a big change for HP and a good one for today’s global marketplace.

I love the hybrid model around their three areas of high impact research, technology transfer, and open innovation.  Also their big bet focus on 8 key areas is consistent with the market – HP Labs is well organized.  How can you not be impressed with the swagger, sharpened focus, and collaborative approach of HP Labs.  I’m sure it will surely yield some great things.  HP is a company with great talent.

One challenge that I see for HP is in trying to figure out how to take these technologies breakthroughs to the market.  The current market is very fast and fluid with open source dominating the research and rapid venture creation side.  There doesn’t seem to be any outreach to the existing market of developers and entrepreneurs.

HP doesn’t have the visibility in the market like some of the big guns like Google, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft. Right now Google is killing it in terms of translating projects to the market.  Can HP move that fast?  It’s an open question.

Overall HP Labs sharpened focus around eight core research areas combined with a holistic approach to the market of technology categories is a winner.

“We want to solve the biggest most important problems facing the world and leverage all of our energy and talent to drive to that goal and as a result it will represents billions of dollars of business opportunity for HP” say Prith.

About John Furrier

John Furrier is founder, co-CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of SiliconANGLE, a new media company covering the intersection of computer science and social science. Furrier is also the co-founder and CEO of CrowdChat a social media platform for large-scale group conversations over hashtags. In addition to SiliconANGLE John runs Broadband Developments a private incubator and investment firm for creating new startups. Furrier lives in Palo Alto, California with his wife and four children.