Role models: Electrical engineer Prith Banerjee leads HP Labs. He poses in front of a photograph of Hewlett-Packard’s founders.
Hewlett-Packard is in trouble. Smart phones and tablets threaten to trivialize its status as the world’s largest PC maker; cloud computing is destabilizing its server business; printers are no longer seen as high tech. HP’s stock price plunged in 2011 as the company groped for a strategic direction.
A major part of new CEO Meg Whitman’s plan to revitalize the company is to lean more heavily on ideas from the 500 at HP Labs, the global research arm headquartered in Palo Alto, California. Those researchers are explicitly tasked with creating disruptive innovations—even if these challenge HP’s current business. Among the labs’ recent achievements: persuading the company to try low-cost server chips and pioneering a novel memory component known as the memristor. The director of HP Labs, electrical engineer Prith Banerjee, told Technology Review IT editor Tom Simonite why technological disruption can be a helpful internal force at HP, not just an unwelcome external one.
TR: When Meg Whitman became CEO in September, she asked that you report to her directly. How does that help HP innovate?
Banerjee: We used to report to the CEO through the CSTO [Chief Strategy and Technology Officer]. Now there is no filtering through someone involved with the core business; the CEO can get a completely untarnished opinion of where the technology is headed. We also now work directly with the top heads of the business units, so we can help influence the technology vision of the company more. Our mission is to create absolutely disruptive innovation beyond the current road map of products even if that disruption could cannibalize part of our business today.
What’s the biggest advance that HP Labs has made during your tenure?
The Central Nervous System for the Earth [CeNSE]. We developed a Richter accelerometer 1,000 times more sensitive than existing sensors. We are working with Shell on using that for energy exploration, combining HP sensors, networking, servers, and software to provide a better picture of existing and alternative energy resources. It will allow Shell to perform more targeted discovery and reduce their environmental impact.
What is an example of an idea from labs that HP is adopting even though it disrupts the existing business?
Project Moonshot, where we launched servers based around low-powered chips with an ARM or Intel Atom architecture like those in mobile devices. Our server business is a very lucrative cash cow; we want people to buy these hunks of metal with large profit margins. But my researchers could see that the future is not heavy number-crunching—it is the tweeting, real-time-updating Zyngas of the world. The architecture we need for that is not a server with a high-performance Intel processor—it’s a lot of low-powered processors working together. Eventually the head of our server business said, “We’re going to do this.”