Your R&D department is…everywhere

In tech projects, as everyday life, the whole is often more powerful than the sum of its parts.

Way more powerful.

Technology clusters exemplify this principle.

Clusters – as defined by the National Research Council Canadaor NRC – are concentrations of technology-intensive organizations focused on specific sectors.

In Canada, promoting tech clusters is a key mandate of the NRC, the Canadian government’s premier organization for research and development.

Clustering is an incredibly powerful way of fostering economic growth, the NRC says, because it “brings people, knowledge and entrepreneurial drive together to turn science and technology developments into innovations”

These “pools of talent” as the NRC calls them, include not just technology firms – but also businesses, colleges and universities and governments.

Implicit in the formation of clusters is the belief that research that can transform the lives of people and society often doesn’t happen within the confines of a company’s four walls – but as a result of interaction between many different groups.

And that’s a conviction shared by some of world’s leading R&D experts, such as Prith Banerjee, director of HP Labs at Palo Alto, Calif.

At 47, Banerjee can write the book on results-oriented R&D.  He has authored countless papers, earned several patents and has been honoured by three of the IT industry’s most prestigious technical societies.

Banerjee is one of the senior HP executives I will be meeting next week during a media tour of HP Labs at Palo Alto, Calif.

On reading some of his remarks made during the course of a recent interview (published on the HP site) I noted how closely Banerjee’s views aligned with the NRC’s notion of “technology clusters” as a pre-requisite for high-impact R&D.

Except that Banerjee used the term “open innovation” to describe what was essentially a similar reality.

“Open innovation”, the HP Labs director suggested, involves at least two things – a mind-set and an action plan.

The mindset is the willingness “to recognize there are people outside your own organization who are as smart as you, or perhaps even smarter.”

And the action plan involves a strategy to access and take advantage of these external resources.

“Whether they are PhD students at universities, entrepreneurs, startups, etc. – you can tap into their ideas,” Banerjee said in the interview.

This concept, he said, contrasts sharply with the “closed innovation” model adopted by research labs in many large enterprises – whose researchers work on their own and then “funnel [their results] to businesses inside their own companies.”
Banerjee’s philosophy is different.

“I’m a big believer in collaboration,” he says.

In a previous career as an academic, he forged partnerships with many industrial research organizations. Now, at the helm at HP Labs in Palo Alto, he is determined to establish similar alliances with universities and other groups.

Of course, as the old saw goes, “there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.”

While “open innovation” sounds like a fabulous idea, getting multiple organizations to work together on a research project is a complex business.

And as a reporton the topic points out many factors can interfere with this goal including:

  • Issues around ensuring equity between partners in such relationships;
  • The need to protect intellectual property and achieve a good return for time and money spent.
  • The fear that sharing ideas and resources, and opening up one’s business affairs to another company might jeopardize competitive advantage.

 

Still, while these obstacles aren’t insurmountable – and the pay off when you pursue “open innovation” can be incredible.

To modify a Frederick Nietzsche quote, “he who has a why to collaborate can bear almost any how.”

For Banerjee too, the “why” of collaboration seems to be the most vital issue – one that needs to be addressed before everything else.

“I’d start with making sure that when a research project begins there’s a reason why – not just a scientific reason, but a market reason, why this work should proceed,” he said in an October 2007 interview with Jamie Beckett.

In practical terms, people who want to get HP involved in their research project would need to “explain in their research proposal what the possible impact could be – some rough estimate of the size of the market, how much they think HP will have to invest to bring that research to market, and what the predicted return on investment might be.”

Bur Banerjee emphasizes that he wants HP Labs to work on big-time, risky projects. “that would create enormous value for HP.”

One project that seems to fall into this category is the drug delivery technology developed by HP Labs, a system for painless, controlled release of one or more drugs through a single patch applied to the skin.

The skin patch uses microneedles that barely penetrate the skin. This radically reduces discomfort compared to traditional hypodermic needles and enables the technique to be used with a much wider variety of drugs and biopharmaceuticals.

Precision is the other benefit of this technology – in addition to greater comfort and efficiency. As microneedles allow medication to quickly enter the bloodstream, the potential result is lower and more precise dosages.

Interestingly, this drug delivery method was developed as a way to repurpose HP’s inkjet technology for use in new markets. The technology in the skin patch is similar to that employed in HP’s patented process for its inkjet cartridges.

The project epitomizes the concept of open innovation – as it won’t be HP that commercializes this technology but Crospon – a medical device developer based in Galway, Ireland.

Last September HP signed an agreement licensing its intellectual property relating to this invention to Crospon in return for royalty payments.

So Crospon will manufacture the skin patch, and manage its marketing, sales and support – making it available to pharmaceutical companies to use in various therapeutic procedures.

And the HP-Crospon initiative can serve as a model for collaborative business development.

In Ireland, this is already happening through Enterprise Ireland – an Irish government agency tasked with supporting and growing indigenous business in that country.

So, for instance, through Enterprise Ireland, startups could license HP’s intellectual property and access the company’s business and technology mentoring.

And it’s a model of innovation that particularly appeals to Banerjee, who says “open output” is a natural corollary to open innovation.

“I’d like to bring some startup DNA into HP Labs,” he says.

This approach, he says, is better than keeping technologies hidden inside HP Labs.

As long as the research done within HP Labs ultimately benefits society, you have done something, right?

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