Isn’t it difficult to get leaders in the business units to listen to ideas that challenge their current products?
There are times it’s not enough to explain something or show a research prototype. We have a program called “demonstrators” to build a product from scratch that really convinces people. For example, we had been researching photonic [networking] interconnects—that use light, not electricity—for several years. But the businesses said it was expensive and couldn’t be built. We took a very high-end router that HP makes and changed the [internals] into photonics. When we demoed that, everyone said, “Wow, this is a great innovation.”
HP has struggled with smart phones and tablets. How is HP Labs helping the company respond?
We have a mobile team in the lab that works hand in hand with the business; we are passing them the tools to adapt. This is a very fast-moving market, so we can’t talk about it in detail.
We also are researching areas that HP is not currently working in, and that goes for our mobile team, too.
HP Labs has sites in the U.K., Israel, Russia, Singapore, India, and China. Does that help you find disruptive ideas?
If you are only U.S.-centric, you are missing a lot of opportunities. Let’s say you’re trying to create a tablet device for India. You would think of the iPad, but out of India’s one billion people, only 50 million access the Internet—but 500 million have access to simple phones. Our researchers in India built a hardware device called the Vayu and a whole cloud system to deliver the Web via SMS, called Siteonmobiles. Our researchers in Palo Alto would never have thought of that.
After you joined HP Labs, you consolidated research into fewer areas. Why?
We were working on far too many cool things. We had 150-ish projects, each involving one or two researchers. We felt that we needed to channel the creative minds of these people. If every project would bring together two computer scientists, one chemical engineer, a social scientist, and a physicist, something really cool could happen.
Most people associate disruptive technology with startups. Why should we believe big companies can innovate?
Startups take research from academia and innovate around how to bring it to market—the execution. The majority of them do very little R&D. A startup could not invent a technology like the memristor: it took us five to 10 years to come up with the right combination of materials and everything else. We are doing fundamental innovation and bringing that to market within the next three years.