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Experts: Innovation in danger due to lack in basic research

Posted: 28 May 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Bell Labs? Ethernet? research? innovation?

The decline of big corporate R&D groups such as Bell Labs has created a hole in the innovation pipeline said Bill Spencer at an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ethernet.

A panel of experts during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Ethernet stated that the innovation pipeline could be running dry due to a lack of federal funding in basic research and the decline of big corporate R&D labs.

The panel lamented the loss of AT&T Bell Labs that gave birth to the transistor and the decline of Xerox PARC, the birthplace of Ethernet. In contrast, many of today's largest tech companies, such as Apple, were accused by Congress for failing to pay taxes on billions in revenue while also conducting virtually no basic research.

"When I was at Xerox people were not preoccupied with raising millions in VC fundswe had free reign to make breakthroughs come true," said Yogen Dalal, a managing director at the Mayfield Fund who wrote a seminal paper on Ethernet in its early days. "You have to have breakthroughs, but today who will fund them," he asked.

"The thing that concerns me the most is we have lost the lead in big industrial researchwe would never have had the transistor without Bell Labs," said Bill Spencer, former head of PARC and Sematech. "The U.S. still has the best university system in world, and it's still the best place to bring new things to market, but the middle missing," he said.

Bill Spencer

Figure: Bill Spencer led PARC in the early days of Ethernet.

"We're missing the role the labs played which was less basic research than a translation of applied research," said Judy Estrin, a serial entrepreneur in communications and chief executive of JLabs LLC.

"They took research and invention and tried it at scalePARC created proofs of concepts so start-ups called Bridge or 3Com could make them work with a small amount of funding," Estrin said. "We are missing this translational piece, so it's falling on universities to handle it or large corporations that tend to focus only on the short term bottom line," she added.

Researchers and the lack of funding
Google and Microsoft "are the two companies that can afford to have a research arm" today, Estrin said. But both lack the broad sweep of Bell Labs and the former IBM Research "so there's a big gap today," she added.

"Apple is unbelievably innovative and occasional does applied research, but I don't think they ever believed in investing in basic researchthat's not judgemental, they just don't play that role there," Estrin said.

The big corporate labs trained academics in how to be innovators, Estrin said. She also noted her experience as member of an advisory board for Bio-X, an interdisciplinary research program at Stanford.

"Every one of those researchers is starving for money," she said. "Research doesn't fit into the clean boxes it did at the beginning of the computer industry because now its applying computer technology to brain diseases or managing wellness, so the funding has become more complex because the funders can no longer fund in [well-defined] boxes," she said.

Industry veteran Gordon Bell took issue with the panelists later in the day.

"I don't see things as all that different today," said Bell, now a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. "I think there are a lot of great ideas out there, and more people than ever at the federal funding through," he said.

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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