Lab Results May Vary

Bell Labs has the history, and Google–where engineers devote 20% of their time to personal projects–has the buzz. But other models of corporate innovation are also showing results.


The Program: IBM Research’s Exploratory Research Program


How It Works: Any of its 3,000 researchers can pitch ideas to IBM Research’s management team. Ten teams per year, composed of three to five researchers, get the funding and time–up to three to five years–to realize their concept.

Payoff: What began in 2001 as a hunch by two researchers who wanted to break down language barriers is now Mastor, a real-time, voice-activated foreign-language translation software for PDAs and laptops. Last year, 10,000 of the units were deployed to U.S. military in Iraq for English-Arabic translation.


The Program: HP Labs

How It Works: Startup teams of 10 to 20 engineers pitch “big bets” to a management board. About 30 get green-lighted annually, with a hefty dose of financing. The engineers spend 100% of their time on their projects and pair up with the corresponding business units to bring the product to market.

Payoff: Too early to say. The nascent program designed by the unit’s new director, Prith Banerjee, an academic and entrepreneur, just kicked off in December. The focus on “big bets” is a drastic shift for the lab, which formerly focused on 150 smaller-scale projects per year–think incremental printer enhancement instead of a next-gen machine.


The Program: Xerox Innovation Group’s Technology Incubation Network


How It Works: The company’s 600 engineers, scientists, and researchers can pitch pet projects to a rotating council of eight peers–not management–who determine the recipients of small-scale seed funding. If initial efforts are successful and there’s a strong business case, the venture is incorporated into Xerox’s RD&E budget for the following year.

Payoff: The 20-month-old program has funded roughly two dozen projects, ranging from a research lab on virtual world Second Life, where Xerox researchers can meet as avatars and share concepts, to working with the Library of Congress to digitize 1 million images in a new, more agile compressed format called JPEG 2000.


The Program: Corning Innovation Lab’s Technology Council

How It Works: Every four to six weeks, its 600 research scientists can pitch an idea related to Corning’s core markets–glass and ceramics–to a council of company scientists and executives, including the CEO. Proposals that receive funding are managed closely through early stages of development; a fraction with the best commercial prospects become formal full-time projects.

Payoff: In August, Corning unveiled ClearCurve optical fiber, which is far more flexible than typical single-mode fiber. The innovation–named one of Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of the Year” for 2007–began back in 2003 with two research scientists studying how to remove air bubbles from glass.


About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton