26 August 2009
Rich Friedrich, Strategy and Innovation Office, HP Labs
Rich Friedrich, director, Strategy and Innovation Office, HP Labs speaks to Graham Pitcher.
A decade ago, or more, corporate R&D in the electronics industry was alive and well. Today, things are different. Now, the emphasis is much more on the D aspect than it is on the R side of things.
But there are still a few companies who maintain what can be seen as 'blue sky' research operations and one of these is Hewlett-Packard, with HP Labs.
Rich Friedrich is director of HP Labs' Strategy and Innovation Office (SIO). "HP Labs is one of the few research centres left," he agreed. "We have two main groups – in Palo Alto and Bristol – with smaller labs around the world."
So what is Friedrich's role? "SIO tries to put together strategic priorities for HP Labs; where the investment goes, how to collaborate with universities and so on."
He said the aim is to get the best ideas from around the world in order to deliver breakthrough technologies in the ICT arena. "We have a technology transfer group which moves these ideas into products for customers."
Friedrich is proud of the work that's been done. "As far as I can tell," he continued, "it's the only organisation that does this kind of work; an innovative research programme."
Although some of the ideas come from HP Labs' employees, others come from universities around the world. "We make a public call for proposals around a set of research topics that we have developed. Last year, we made 45 awards and this year that's grown by 30%, even in today's challenging times."
Friedrich noted that, last year, 82 graduates supported 61 company published papers. "It's about collaboration," he continued, "and not about throwing money at universities."
Complementing the work with universities is a similar program with commercial partners. "An example is Open Cirrus," he continued, "the cloud computing test bed."
Nevertheless, Friedrich doesn't have free rein. "We need to maintain an alignment with where the company wants to be in five to ten years," he admitted, "and we won't be going off to do rockets."
But he does have the advantage of setting the technology agenda for a large and varied business. "Think about HP's core business," he prompted. "It's got the largest consumer and enterprise base. But we're also now delivering services [following the acquisition of EDS]. This gives us a huge field of opportunities. Our challenge isn't being constrained; rather, it's making sure we focus. Through collaboration, we're looking to amplify the research investment being made and taking the developments to market."
How does Friedrich prioritise the research themes? "It's more an art than a science," he admitted, "and the best way to describe it is as a vigorous tension between top down priorities and a bottom up view of what the ideas should be."
It is, he continued, impossible to deliver technology without those 'bottom up' ideas. "But we have to be able to nurture them and some people are good at that; we give them a huge playing field. Others need more structure."
And that comes down to getting the right people working in the organisation and developing their skills. "If you want to win the World Cup," he noted, "you need world class players. We need to get the right people in the right positions and adapt as the industry changes."
Part of SIO's agenda is addressing fundamental technology issues. "We have to understand where the technical barriers are," he contended, "and need to discover them as quickly as possible in order to know how far a particular technology could take us."
So what's the balance within HP Labs? "About a third of our staff are working on fundamental research," Friedrich noted, "with another third involved in technology transfer. All the time, we have to remember that we're an industrial research lab and, in the end, we have to benefit the corporation."
He admits that industry, in general, faces a challenge when setting the balance between R and D. "If you look at the last 20 years, pressure – from Wall Street, for example – has forced a lot of technology companies to be careful about where they invest and, when the money is tight, R will get cut before D. But that's short term; shareholders feel good. In the longer term, it can have profound consequences and the industry is still struggling to deal with this. It's turned out to be a competitive advantage for HP, but it's happening because financial markets are driving corporations away from innovation."
He is a strong believer in innovation and points to HP's history as an example. "When HP merged with Compaq, the analysts said 'get rid of the pc business'. But what we did was to put more innovation into our products and more consumer 'feel'. Since then, HP has grown and added market share, taking business from other companies. Innovation gives long term viability, even in tough times."
With industry's general focus on the short term, how quickly does the work underway at HP Labs get to market? "Sometimes, it takes a long while and that is often a factor of the market's ability to consume it. "
But some of the fundamental work – such as that being led by Stan Williams – is proving particularly interesting. Williams has not only developed the memristor, he's been working on such project as nano imprint lithography.
"Once you have elements like the memristor," Friedrich continued, "you start thinking about how to re-architect computers."
But, in the end, HP is product driven and that fact is obvious to Friedrich. "We want to get out in front," he concluded, "so our product groups have the time to take those products to market. We're laying the foundations and most of our work ends up being monetarised in some fashion."