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Today’s guest on our CXO of the Future Podcast is Dr. Prith Banerjee, an acclaimed engineer and educator. He is currently the Chief Technology Officer at ANSYS, a leader in engineering simulation.
Background and Career Drivers
“I’ve always believed that you have to make big bets and swing hard. And when you make big bets, swing hard, and be willing to accept the fact that some of those bets will not work out. If you are only taking incremental steps with lower risk, you will essentially get incremental results. That philosophy has always guided me in my career.”
Phase 1: The Academic
Prith came to the US after getting his undergraduate degree in India. He got his Master’s PhD from the University of Illinois, started his career in academia, and spent 20 years as a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern, and University of Illinois at Chicago.
When Prith was dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he told all his colleagues: “Right now, you can be a solo professor working on one small grant from the National Science Foundation (and a team of one or two graduate students) and all you’ll have is incremental impact. Why not focus on big programs the way the Berkeley’s, Stanford’s and MIT’s do? They work together on large grants like the Energy Research Center and try to do a big bet instead.” Prith and his colleagues wound up teaming up to work on a large research proposal and scored some bigger contracts.
Phase 2: The Startup
For the second phase of Prith’s career, he founded two small startup companies, AccelChip and BINACHIP, which were based on technologies from his days in academia. AccelChip in particular came out of a really big bet on a project at Northwestern called the MATCH Compiler funded by DARPA – a crazy long-range project with MATLAB specifications of automated target recognition. The project was successful and was the beginning of his first startup which he sold to Xilinx Corporation
This was important, because Prith got to experience the process of taking an idea from a research lab in a university setting, to figuring out how to build a product that customers will pay for.
After getting a taste for the startup ecosystem, building something new and truly innovative—something that could make an impact on society—became truly important to him. He then started his next company BINACHIP. This mindset ushered him into the third phase of his career—working on R&D teams within large corporations.
Phase 3: The Enterprise
The first large company that Prith worked for was HP Labs. He ran HP Labs Worldwide for about five years, reporting into the CTO, and later played the CTO role himself at ABB, a large foreign automation company in Zurich in Switzerland, at Schneider Electric, and now at ANSYS.
“I’ve been fortunate to work in innovation in an academic setting where you’re looking at really long term R&D-style innovation, and in a startup setting, focused 100% on building that one amazing product. And subsequently, at companies like ABB, Schneider and ANSYS, I’ve been responsible for R&D investments across a wide range of products. Some of the R&D projects are short term, some are medium term, and some long term. I’ve been fortunate to have had the experience in all forms of innovation, in all forms of companies.”
Soon after joining HP Labs, Prith had a crucial experience where he helped reorganize the team. When he joined, he had about 600 researchers working on hundreds of R&D projects in small teams of 1-2 people.
And Prith thought, wow, we’re a hundred-billion-dollar revenue company with so much going on – why is everyone working on a large number (200) of smaller efforts? He suggested combining many of these smaller projects and getting teams to work together on some big bets. They ended up with 20 big bet research ideas, with 20-30 people on each. There was a formal call for proposals that were reviewed by the CTOs of the different businesses. So everybody ultimately helped select these projects. And it worked: they ended up with some fantastic outcomes including a sustainable data center, a low power server, and a commercial digital printer. It was an amazing transformation process for HP Labs.
However, if Prith had come in and said “Hey, I’m the head of HP Labs, and I’m telling you this is the way to do it,” it would have never been a success. What he learned from working as a dean, and working with professors, was that to get the buy-in from the faculty, you must have the faculty drive the thing – and this is what they accomplished at HP labs.
“I think of myself as the Pied Piper. I would play the flute and people will follow me naturally because they believe in the vision.”
Developing a “Thinking Big” Mindset
HP had 5 different divisions and about 30,000 R&D people. But HP Labs had only 600. Here is the case Prith made:
- If the 600 people are essentially doing the same work as the regular 30,000, what is the ultimate value of HP Labs? Nothing. Therefore, if HP Labs is only short-term work just to support the businesses, you might as well shut it down
- If HP Labs did only long-term ten-years-out projects, they’d be considered irrelevant to the company since the benefits of the work would not be evident day to day
- If HP Labs did only incremental work, then it’s redundant with the regular work managed by HP’s 30,000 R&D employees
The ‘Aha’ moment was to apply Mckinsey’s Horizon Model concept:
- A third of the projects should have immediate impact, meaning impact in six to 18 months
- A third of projects should be mid-term with results in two to three years
- A third of the projects should be the wacky, long-term, ten-years-out projects
Everyone agreed, and this is how projects were funded.
Driving Successful Innovation with the Horizon Model
After HP Labs Prith was CTO at ABB, Schneider, and now ANSYS. In all of these roles he has been responsible for innovation inside the company, which Prith defines as: “Something new the world has not seen before, that has financial or societal value.”
There are three horizons of innovation according to McKinsey:
- Horizon 1 ideas promote continuous innovation of a company’s business model or product. At ANSYS, for example, he has an existing fluids product but needs to add new features and versions of the product every 6 to 18 months so that customers will continue to buy it. There are 2000 R&D people at ANSYS who make those incremental changes to the current products on offer
- Horizon 2 innovations extend a company’s existing business model and core capabilities to new customers, markets, or targets
- Horizon 3 is completely disruptive, with companies creating products and capabilities in an entirely new area. This is the category where companies typically fail. Good companies do 70 percent of their R&D investments in Horizon 1, 20 percent in Horizon 2 and 10 percent in Horizon 3. That’s where the investments for organizations like HP Labs, IBM Research or Microsoft Research are made
Prith believes his role as a CTO is to look at those opportunities. Line of business leaders do a good job in Horizon 1 and 2. It’s their job. The CTO’s role is to look at the Horizon 3 opportunities and determine what new things can be brought to the customers.
Working with Startups
Prith worked at Accenture and Schneider Electric for a while, where they both brought in a lot of new startups, and it’s his belief that there are really two kinds of startup interactions:
Startups that are using ANSYS software to build truly innovative products for the future. One startup that Prith is working with is building a futuristic rocket and cannot afford ANSYS products. As a result, Ansys gave them early access to their tools at a ridiculously cheap price, basically free. Right now, there are over 1,000 such startups in the startup program, and the idea is that once those startups are successful and get more than five million in revenue, they’ll start being able to pay for the tools that they’re using. So far, about 200 have graduated and are now ANSYS customers. This is a great way to work with startups to build business.
Startups with Horizon 3 ideas. At ANSYS, the team makes modeling software for engineering simulation. This includes finite element analysis software that can model the world around us, fluid simulation software known for its advanced physics modeling capabilities and unmatched accuracy, etc. But as CTO, Prith has to look towards the future. Right now a big focus is AI/machine learning applied to simulation. Can ANSYS accelerate simulation using AI techniques or use high performance computing to speed things up via GPUs? Startups can help with many new and innovative models worth addressing. There’s a startup called Cascade, for example, that is working on ways to take fluid dynamics software and parallelize it using GPUs. ANSYS is currently working with Geminus, a startup that is building a process-centric digital twin product that delivers self-optimized design and operational intelligence. They’re also working with a company called Neural Concept in Switzerland that is taking an AI approach to accelerate simulation, combined with geometry and coding.
At some point in the future, these startups may become potential acquisition areas for ANSYS.
“I play an Indian classical musical instrument called the sitar, and when you’re playing classical music in the Western style, like Beethoven’s Fifth, everything is written and played in a particular order. It’s beautiful but very prescriptive. The Indian classical style is more like jazz. There are some general constructs, but you can innovate and play all kinds of variations depending on you as an individual. I have always been attracted to the Indian classical way, where you can innovate within a basic structure. That has driven me in my quest for innovation.”
Prith Banerjee is Chief Technology Officer at ANSYS, a leader in engineering simulation. Prior to that, he was EVP and CTO of Schneider Electric. Formerly, he was Managing Director of Global Technology R&D at Accenture. Earlier, he was EVP and CTO of ABB. Previously, he was Director of HP Labs. Formerly, he was Dean of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Formerly he was Chairman of ECE at Northwestern. Formerly, he was professor of ECE at the University of Illinois. In 2000, he founded AccelChip which was sold to Xilinx Inc. in 2006. During 2005-2011, he was founder, Chairman and Chief Scientist of BINACHIP. Banerjee currently serves on the Board of Directors of Cubic and Turntide. In the past, he has served on Board of Cray and Anita Borg Institute, and the Technical Advisory Boards of Ambit, Atrenta , Calypto, Cypress, Ingram Micro, and Virsec. He was listed in the FastCompany list of 100 top business leaders in 2009. He is a fellow of the AAAS, ACM and IEEE. He received a B.Tech. in electronics engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana.
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