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HP Labs tightens ship, focuses research

The famed research arm of Hewlett-Packard announces a renewed focus on a few key areas, and has a clearer path for how innovation will be transferred to the business units.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Hewlett-Packard unveiled a new plan for its research arm, HP Labs on Thursday at its Silicon Valley headquarters, saying it will sharpen its focus into fewer specific projects and promising a greater emphasis on exploratory research.

The change is being instituted by new HP Labs chief Prith Banerjee, who came to HP in August after two decades in academia.

"The approach (HP Labs) took before was appropriate for its time," Banerjee said. The change is mostly driven by the speed at which individuals and enterprises demand information today. "As the Internet becomes the primary provider of IT, we need to change fundamentally the way information is accessed, shared, and communicated," he said.

Banerjee's new plan is effectively a way of tightening the reins at the fabled research institute that seemed to have lost some of its focus in last few years. Instead of allowing its 600 researchers to work on more than 150 separate projects, the new plan of attack has the Lab focusing on five main areas of research, including information management, cloud computing, transforming analog content to digital, intelligent infrastructures, and sustainability.

Within those five broad topic areas will be 20 or 30 specific projects with more definite project lifespans, so research will not be allowed to continue for years on end with no real-world application arrived at.

Previously HP Labs spent 10 percent of its time on exploratory research, about 40 percent on applied research, and 40 percent to 50 percent on advanced product development. Now it will be divided in equal thirds. With the reorganization there will be "more emphasis on the 'R'" in R & D, Banerjee said.

There's also a change in managing how the researchers work and choose projects, which HP hopes will result in far more efficient time to market for applicable new technologies.

Before researchers needed only pitch an idea to a lab director before getting the go-ahead. Under Banerjee's new plan there will be an oversight board made up of equal parts lab directors, people from HP's business units, and technologists from across the company. Any researcher will be able to pitch the board on a research idea based primarily on two criteria: how it will advance a technical challenge, and how it will work commercially.

Under the old system, researchers spent 3 to 5 years on a project, then they would pitch it to a business unit. But by then it was often too late, and the technology or advancement was no longer useful for specific HP products. With the new approach, the idea is to get better and more relevant technical and business problems addressed by the researchers early on. It's an approach that's borrowed from academia and venture capitalists, Banerjee said.

The overall budget for HP research will remain static. "This is not a cost-cutting exercise," HP Chief Technology Officer Shane Robison emphasized. Instead, he said, it's intended to help the lab refocus its energies and resources.

But profit is part of it. There will also be further emphasis on finding consumers for any intellectual property HP chooses not to use in its own products. It will be licensed to other companies, who will pay royalties to HP for its use. HP initially began doing that about five years ago.

The company also announced a commitment to sharing its research with universities, venture capital firms, and partner companies, as well as speeding the time to market that its scientific discoveries show up in actual HP products.