As consumers’ media consumption habits continue to change, Ruth Dawson’s research and development team is charged with developing technology to support what comes next.
The California-based Senior Vice President of Comcast Labs says her team primarily focuses on projects that will potentially hit the market in three to five years.
But in response to the COVID pandemic, Comcast’s R&D group developed technology that enabled the company to support customers without entering their home. Its computer vision system uses artificial intelligence to validate cable connections using just a digital photo.
The Philadelphia-based company, which was founded in 1963, employs about 168,000 people and posts more than $103 billion in annual revenue. Since 2011, Comcast has also been the parent company of the entertainment conglomerate NBCUniversal, which is broadcasting this month’s Winter Olympics from Beijing.
We spoke with Dawson recently about the trends she’s paying attention to, and the three avenues that a Comcast Labs project can travel: a hand-off to the business, a temporary hold, or a full stop.
How many people are in Comcast’s R&D unit, and where are they?
The team includes dozens of technologists, including PhDs, distinguished engineers and fellows and active inventors from a wide variety of educational professional backgrounds and industries. We’re located across three geographies. So, I’m based in Silicon Valley with some of my team out here. We have some of my team in Philadelphia and some in Denver.
What’s your total headcount?
What we’re doing is looking at leveraging technology for our customers and our employees… we can look a little further out and see how technology can really enhance things.
What trends are having an impact on your R&D unit?
Certainly, the trends we’ve looked at this year include immersive, augmented reality, and virtual reality. And that’s actually a nice segue into the future of the workplace, which we were looking at already. COVID kind of pushed the needle on that. We continue to look at things like sustainability and advanced computing — quantum computing, edge computing. Ultimately, what we’re doing is looking at leveraging technology for our customers and our employees. Leveraging how we can look a little further out and see how technology can really enhance things for our customers and employees.
Does your unit always innovate in house, or does it also work with startups?
I’d definitely say it’s a combination. Our industry typically has been more focused on build versus buy, historically. I think we’ve really changed the needle on that, with much more focus on looking at where the technology makes sense. So, my team does actively look at startups. If there is tech out there with a large company, or a startup, that we can partner with [to] bring it in and augment it, any combination of that is really what we’re looking for. Ultimately, we’re not just looking at what was invented in our own shop.
What are the hurdles you commonly deal with when developing in house, versus M&A?
Whether is M&A or non-M&A, it could be “Hey, we’ll look at someone’s product.” Typically, we’ll prove it out. My team’s charter is proving out technology. So, we’ll look at things and experiment, and then hand them off to others in the organization. It could be a proof-of-concept, or it could be how to integrate with something internally.
In terms of hurdles, I think we’ve been working on this for a while. Whether it’s in-house or external [technology], we’re always looking at where we can partner with someone internally to hand it off to. Because again, my team does need to do validation and ultimately, we want to see where it could land. We want to partner with someone who has a need…
We do expect out of my team some things that aren’t going to be successes. We validated it, but said, ‘Hey, this doesn’t make sense.’
How do you measure for senior executives what your department does?
There’s a qualitative and a quantitative piece to this. From a qualitative perspective, I really look at it as anything I experiment with — it could be a startup … or it could be a myriad of things. There are three dispositions for those projects. One is, we vet it and then hand it off to another team for deployment. My team doesn’t do the deployment. We’ll do the validation, and then we’ll partner with somebody and hand it off. They’ll ultimately deploy it. So that’s one avenue.
The next avenue, again bearing in mind [that] we’re looking at things further off in the horizon. The next is, we validated it, but it’s a little too early for the business. So, we’ll pause it. We obviously have the learning from what we did, and we’ll be ready to hand it off when the time is right.
The third one is potentially just stopping it. We do expect out of my team some things that aren’t going to be successes. We validated it, but said, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense.” If we haven’t done any of those, then we haven’t taken enough risks. So my team is going to try to do something riskier. But the idea is to fail fast. If there’s not an “a-ha,” just acknowledge it, take learnings from it, and move on.
On the quantitative side, we’re very active in patents. Obviously you can measure those. Comcast currently has over 2,600 patents in the US and close to 2,000 patents pending. During the last 10 years, we’ve actually grown the patent portfolio by 13 times.