Dr. John Hennessy Speaks at Fujitsu North America Technology Forum
Zen Kishimoto
Posted January 27, 2013 by in Editorial

Fujitsu’s annual conference is a good deal. It is free and presents prominent speakers on timely technology subjects with very little Fujitsu propaganda. I am fortunate enough to be on their invitation list. I will discuss the overview of the conference in a later blog but focus now on this special keynote by Dr. John Hennessy, president of Stanford University. He spoke about the role of universities in technology.

Long ago, I read one of his papers but this was my first time to see him on the stage. Fujitsu has cultivated working relationships with many prominent research labs and universities throughout the world. Stanford is one of them.

Everyone knows that both Stanford and UC Berkeley incubated many excellent technology companies in Silicon Valley. Many came from Stanford, like SGI, Netscape, Cisco, HP, Yahoo, Google, and Sun, and then there was TCP/IP per Vint Cerf. So Stanford must have done something right.

Dr. John Hennessy

Hennessy’s talk was about transference between universities and the real world. But this could be applied to the enterprise world as well, as in spin-outs and spin-ins. In any event, let me summarize his points, some of which I have paraphrased, and ponder on how they might be applied to the real world.

First, he said new technologies were building blocks for new industries and therefore economic growth. Those technologies came from company and university research labs. He gave examples:

· Semiconductors—initiated by Bell Labs.

· Workstations—remember Xerox Parc’s Alto Computer?

· Internet—no explanation required.

· Web—made possible by the Internet, then made the Internet even bigger.

· Biotechnology—fundamental research was done at universities.

He continued by saying that universities are a source of:

· Discontinuous innovations

· Talent

Two points he wanted to make in his talk were:

1. How to promote innovation in a university or company.

2. How to transfer innovations to real products.

He made the first point clear by saying that it is important to pick the right set of people and let them drive the direction of research. Those people should include visionaries (who have compelling ideas), explorers (who give some direction to those ideas), and uninhibited executors (who carry out the more concrete tasks and often are students.) His example of a visionary was Jim Clark, who founded both Silicon Graphics and Netscape. I had a chance to meet with Jim Clark when he founded Netscape with Marc Andreessen many years ago. Because of some interesting circumstance I will not discuss here, he gave a chalk talk just for me about how he saw the Internet and why a web browser business would grow along with the Internet’s growth by analyzing other players, the telecom and communications market at that time. It was very nicely delivered, and I felt he was a real visionary.

Also, regarding his first point, Hennessy said three things are important:

A) Live on the edge of technology.

B) Find discontinuities.

C) Find the best people.

Although there are subtle differences, I think points A) and B) are very similar in that it is important to consider what could be done even better without getting bogged down by current constraints or the way things have been designed. For A), Hennessy gave as examples both Xerox Alto, which led to the creation of workstations and PCs, and Cisco, which laid the basis for Internet infrastructures. Other examples included the Internet and Yahoo. For the second example, he listed MIPS, which he founded.

Finding good people is also an important factor. At Stanford, more than half the engineering students are from outside the US. Companies like Silicon Graphics, Yahoo, Google, Sun, and VMware were cofounded by people who came from outside this country. Those good people should be given incentives for innovation and freedom to choose their direction.

In the second point of transferring innovation, the biggest point is to transfer people but not technology. This is because:

· Inventors know the technology best.

· New technologies need advocates.

We may have known this intuitively, but he stated it clearly. Come to think of it, it makes good sense. Hennessy thinks students are good ingredients for the transfer. Get good students, grow the talent pool, and teach them how to succeed in entrepreneurship.

He then touched on entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship alone does not work. It is also important to prepare fertile soil for startups. For this you need:

· Tolerance to smart failure

· Access to capital

· Access to engineering talent

· Access to management talent

· Access to advice

· Manufacturing capability

These requirements have been discussed in many places and in many different ways, but it was good to hear them discussed in this context. He pointed out they even apply to internal transfer.

He concluded his talk by saying that:

He did not mention cleantech, but his idea could be applied to that segment.

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