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Blue Skies Ahead

Corporate labs do well to indulge their inner visionaries.
September 1, 2005

The laser. The transistor. Optical fiber. All are transformational technologies that came into being not at academic labs or at startup companies, but at the research centers of large corporations – respectively, Hughes Aircraft, Bell Labs, and Corning Glass Works.

In each case, a company allowed its researchers to be curious, to pursue projects that wouldn’t add a dime to its bottom line in the next quarter, or the next year – or maybe ever.

But in the 1980s and ’90s, corporate research became less curious, as managers pursued a “return on investment.” Almost all of what now passes for corporate research consists of tweaking existing products rather than pursuing entirely new technologies. Fortunately, some companies are still thinking grandly – exploring areas of science and technology not immediately related to their existing sources of revenue.

We profile three such “blue sky” projects in the R&D 2005 article: IBM’s use of supercomputers to model the workings of the human brain; Intel’s development of a way to detect individual biological molecules using lasers and Raman spectroscopy; and Bell Labs’ methodical efforts to assemble a quantum computer that could one day solve certain types of computational problems millions of times faster than today’s machines.

These efforts represent tiny slivers of much larger R&D enterprises. That’s as it should be. But such farsighted work reminds us of the unique quality that corporate labs can bring to innovation. Technology giants like Intel, IBM, and Bell Labs, while tethered to the demands of the market, are still sometimes able to wander off in pursuit of technological adventure.

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