New director looks to inject HP Labs with 'startup DNA'

Prith Banerjee takes over a lab that was once a powerhouse of technological innovation and hopes to focus on fewer projects and bring in fresh talent.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
3 min read

HP Labs got a makeover recently when it installed Prith Banerjee as the new director of the storied research facility. After a month on the job, he sat down with CNET News.com to talk about what he has in store for the future and how he plans to rejuvenate the heart of the company that birthed Silicon Valley.

First selected for the post in May, Banerjee comes to Hewlett-Packard after eight years as the head of the electrical engineering department at Northwestern University and three years as dean of the College of Engineering at University of Illinois-Chicago. He says he feels prepared to take on the trappings of a large organization like HP Labs, which now spends $3.6 billion a year on research and development. But he also had a hand in launching two different start-up companies, the spirit of which he'd like to see more of around his new digs.

"I went through the process of identifying the really high-impact research problems, worked on it in large, collaborative projects...then sold the concept," he said. "I want to see if that start-up entrepreneurial spirit can be brought to HP Labs."

To do so, Banerjee is going to have to change some of the ways things work at the facility in Palo Alto, Calif., which over the past 40 years has brought technology like inkjet printers, handheld scientific calculators and LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to the mass market. The research facility doesn't enjoy the same cutting-edge reputation it once did, but Banerjee has ideas of how to restore that.

First, they need to regain focus. That means working on 30 to 40 "high-impact" projects, instead of 150 as there are now. There will also be tighter deadlines.

Often projects will be run by a couple of people for "a long time," he said. "It's difficult to let go. Projects don't really have a well-defined life cycle. I want to see well-defined research milestones."

"Researchers should ask themselves the hard questions: 'Why am I doing this? How many people will it impact?' Then try to focus on the technology transfer aspect of it," he said.

Getting real results out of the lab and into actual products is one of his main points of focus. Much of what comes out under his regime will revolve around HP's company-wide focus: next-generation data centers, mobile computing and digital printing and imaging.

This will require the help of people outside of HP. It's a concept he refers to as "open innovation." It means "not all the smart people work for us," said Banerjee. He is pursuing more collaborative relationships with start-up companies and universities, the exact nature of which will become more clear by about mid-November, he said.

He also intends to focus on recruiting and retaining young people. It's something that's been more difficult for a lab that doesn't carry the same hip mantle as a Google or Yahoo, which are seen as hotbeds of innovation and, of course, lots of fun employee perks.

"If you want free food, go to Google," he joked. "If you want to feed your mind, come to HP Labs...We will not give free pizza or play ping-pong--we will do things that really matter."