Hewlett-Packard Scans for Tech Breakthroughs

Hewlett-Packard encourages scientists to propose ideas related to cloud computing, sustainability and six other categories.
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PALO ALTO, Calif. (TheStreet) -- In 1966, 27 years after founding the technology giant Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) - Get Report, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard launched a research lab to separate day-to-day operations from innovation, leading to milestones such as the first commercially available light-emitting diode and the first pocket scientific calculator.

Today the HP Labs are organized into 19 separate laboratories in seven countries, employing 600 full-time employees who focus on eight general categories: analytics, cloud computing, content transformation, digital commercial print, immersive interaction, information management, intelligent infrastructure and sustainability. (Recently HP Labs released research showing how the manure from a farm of 10,000 dairy cows could fulfill the power requirements of a 1-megawatt data center, with power left over for the farm.) But Hewlett-Packard is also a champion of so-called "open innovation," encouraging input from university labs and individual entrepreneurs through a series of formal programs as well as informal reviews.

"We take as an assumption that we can't do everything alone," says Michel Benard, director of the open innovation office at HP Labs. "The assumption is that by teaming with external people we'll be stronger and results will be much better."

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The linchpin of open innovation at Hewlett-Packard is the

Innovative Research Program

(IRP), an annual open call for scientists and engineers at colleges and research labs, who are invited to submit ideas for its eight categories. Winners in 2009 included a cloud computing project called "Understanding Political Discourse through Probabilistic Models" and a content transformation project called "Artistic Rendering of Consumer Video Collections."

The company gives a year's worth of research funds, or $50,000 to $75,000, to about 10% of proposals. In 2009, 61 projects at 47 institutions received funding for a year, and half of them went on to receive a second year of funding; a 50/50 success/fizzle ratio is about par for the course in the world of technology research, Benard says.

"In research, sometimes you find something, and sometimes you find that there is nothing," he says.

While the HP Labs division is more autonomous than other divisions of Hewlett-Packard, researchers are still under the gun to turn ideas into viable products within a few years to keep the research from being squelched, and that goes for both university partners and full-time employees. "In the IT industry, people try to have products three to five years later," Benard says. "Three to five doesn't mean 10 or 20 or never. There is pressure to find

marketable ideas. The winning exit is when a prototype goes to a business unit."

The deadline for the 2010 IRP was in January, with winners set to be announced in the coming weeks. But Benard expects the program to continue next year. "We can't commit to anything for the next fiscal year, but there is a strong likelihood that we'll have another release of this program next year," he says.

Entrepreneurs who are not tied to a university can send product pitches to HP at business.ventures@hp.com, Benard says, adding that these proposals are reviewed by a small team of employees who decide whether and where in the company to forward the proposals. To make sure the company takes their ideas seriously, entrepreneurs should be sure their intellectual property is protected, preferably by a U.S. patent. "Otherwise it's risky for everybody," Benard says. "Without

a patent, we don't know if it's really a new idea or if it's something other people have."

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.