HP's New Tack on Research Grants

Hewlett-Packard awards 41 university professors as much as $100,000 apiece and plans to be more involved in the research projects

Hewlett-Packard is shaking up the way it sponsors university research. The computer maker is redoubling efforts to tie grants more closely to work in its labs.

To that end, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) issued an open call in May, inviting researchers from around the world to submit proposals for research in one of 49 areas of particular interest to HP. Results were announced Aug. 14, when HP said it awarded 41 professors as much as $100,000 apiece.

HP funds academic research annually, but this time around, the company plans to work more closely and share resources more strategically with university professors, says HP Labs Director Prith Banerjee. "It's not 'Here's a check, come back in a year,'" Banerjee says. "I'm demanding joint research papers."

By issuing a broad call for proposals, HP was able to pick from a much larger pool, Banerjee says. In the past, HP had agreements with a handful of schools but lacked close ties with a diverse, global group of professors. The relationships were often casual, with little emphasis on cooperation once the money had been pledged. The new approach reflects an effort by Banerjee, who took over as head of HP Labs in May, to link research more closely to business objectives (BusinessWeek, 4/17/08).

Collaborative Effort

In many cases, companies base grant decisions on preexisting relationships with a small number of academics or researchers with whom they've forged plans for collaboration. In some instances, companies choose professors haphazardly—say, because of a conference presentation. In some cases, academics shop their proposals to companies conducting complementary research. "It's very much based on the interests of our faculty and the interests of the company," says Sally O'Neil, manager of the Industrial Contracts Office at Stanford University. Other companies that help fund research at Stanford include Agilent (A), Amgen (AMGN), Boeing (BA), ExxonMobil (XOM), General Electric (GE), General Motors (GM), Eastman Kodak (EK), Nokia (NOK), and SAP (SAP).

The 41 professors who won funding from HP this year hail from 34 different universities. Research topics range from printing to fiber optics to energy use on data centers.

Among the projects being funded is research on information flow by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Erik Brynjolfsson. He's exploring what are known as mega-regions, the clustering of innovation and ideas into a small number of geographic areas—Silicon Valley for technology, for instance, or Milan for fashion. That dovetails with research within HP Labs by Senior Fellow Bernardo Huberman. "We have done a lot of work on how social behavior interacts with social technology…but we don't really have the tools to take on a project like Dr. Brynjolfsson's," Huberman says. "We now have a commitment that we are going to do research together. I feel responsible for the success of their project."

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