How Collaborations Drive Intel Labs’ IoT Strategy

By Steven Melendez |  February 17, 2016

Fifty years ago, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore famously made the observation that came to be known as Moore’s Law, pointing out that computer chips roughly double in power and capability roughly every two years.

Now, as the company looks to continue driving innovation in computing, it is working not only to develop its own new products but to collaborate in new ways with university researchers, government agencies, and customers.

“Because not all the smart people in the world can work at your company or your university, you have to look outside for ideas,” says Martin Curley, Director of Intel Labs Europe and an Intel Vice President.

That’s how Intel approached its recent Sustainable Connected Cities initiative, where the company collaborated with universities and municipal agencies in Dublin and London to explore how network-linked objects — the Internet of Things — could be used to address urban issues.

Working with local officials and researchers helped the company understand the different needs of the two cities, Curley says.

“When we started to engage with Dublin City Council, we thought actually the core problem we would solve using smart cities technology in Dublin would be air quality,” he says. “It was only through doing ethnographic research with Dublin City Council that we realized that air quality wasn’t really a problem in Dublin where it was a big problem in London.” (See below for an example of how pollution sensors could be used to charge vehicles different prices for entering different zones of the city.)

The Dublin effort then focused on flood-management technology instead, he says.

“We partnered with them to put devices into gullies and rivers to figure out, when are the gullies blocked and the rivers rising quickly, so they can respond more quickly,” he says.

It was part of Intel’s push into the Internet of Things, which this fall saw Intel and partner companies announce new hardware, operating systems and reference architectures —essentially design templates—for a variety of connected devices.

“We were able to learn very quickly what works in the field, [and] what doesn’t work in the field,” Curley says. “We were able to get very quickly and at much less cost to a reference architecture and implementation.”

In general, Intel is moving beyond traditional open innovation techniques, where a company solicits ideas or design elements from outside its walls, toward a more complex form of cross-pollination where knowledge is shared between all sets of players — what the company calls Open Innovation 2.0.

“At the core of that is the idea of shared vision and shared values and deep integrated networking across all the actors in an ecosystem to create changes and value far beyond what any one organization can achieve on their own,” says Curley.

That kind of shared innovation, where lots of organizations are experimenting together or, at least, alongside one another on the same platform, helps explain the success of the Web, and of smartphone platforms like Google’s Android, he argues.

“You have a common platform that can serve multiple domains and multiple stakeholders,” says Curley. “When you get people working together, and you have a shared vision, you get the full range: you get acceleration, we can move more quicker together.”

Intel’s Labs division has about 800 employees worldwide, including about 80 within Intel Labs Europe, says Curley. But the lab also has about 700 partner organizations it works with across the continent to share knowledge, he says.

“Intel itself is a large company—we’ve got a very large research budget,” he says. “It’s not just a problem of research budget—it’s a problem of research expertise.”

Curley says the company aims to be open to many different structures and approaches to collaboration with outside entities.

“In more mature areas, there are communities that have formed and were participating in that community,” says Curley. “In very early stages, it could be Intel approaches a university and says ‘Hey, we’re working on a project—can you help?’ or a university researches out to Intel and says, ‘We’ve developed an idea—is it interesting?'”

In one European Commission-backed project, called Tomorrow’s Elastic Adaptive Mobility, or TEAM, Intel is working with carmakers such as Fiat and Volvo, as well as a variety of tech companies, telecom providers and universities, to build technology to ameliorate traffic jams and support more efficient commuting. The goal is to let cars wirelessly signal their destinations to traffic signals, which will work together to route drivers to their destinations as efficiently as possible.

“It’s about all the players in the transportation system working together,” says Curley.

For Intel, the most important metric of a Labs project success is whether it ultimately leads to a product in the market, but the company considers other metrics as well, including boosts to the company’s reputation, says Curley.

In general, projects move from basic research to prototypes to tech transfer to an Intel business unit or an outside partner, he says.

“We have formal stage gates, where you have to meet certain criteria before you can move something from research to [proof of concept] and then even more stringent criteria before you can move something from prototype to tech transfer,” he says.

The Labs team meets annually with business unit leaders to plan potential research projects, since they’ll ultimately require buy-in from the business units to turn into products.

“If you can’t find a sponsored or interested business executive, you probably won’t do that, because you don’t have a tech transfer,” he says.

The team also tries to “balance the portfolio” between shorter-term research projects and those requiring a longer gestation period.

“We also have to work on the ‘blue sky’ work, [which means] something that may not be on that radar screen in the business unit, but will be there in two years,” he says. “Kind of the Wayne Gretzky thing: don’t go to where the puck is, go to where the puck is going to.”

For Curley’s complete “Open Innovation 2.0” presentation, delivered in December 2015 at the World Innovation Convention, visit our Resource Center.