Do we need a new Bell Labs?

Marvell co-founder Weili Dai pines for the day when researchers could focus on discovery without the pressure to creates products. Is she on target?

Marvell co-founder Weili Dai pines for the day when researchers could focus on discovery without the pressure to creates products.

She may be on to something.

In an interview on Smart Planet, I talked to Dai about education, research and development and tablets for poor countries. Dai is a key ally of One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte.

But the point that sticks with me the most is Dai's argument that there needs to be a new Bell Labs, a research incubator that's not necessarily about profit. Xerox's PARC is another lab that mold. Bell Labs is now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) remains a Xerox company.

Sure, these labs were bankrolled by big profitable companies, but the research arms were really think tanks. And a lot of that thinking shaped the Internet today.

Consider that Bell Labs created:

  • The transistor;
  • Data networking;
  • Cell phone technology;
  • Solar cells;
  • Digital switching;
  • Communications satellites;
  • The touch-tone phone;
  • Unix and C;
  • Digital signal processors.

The Bell Labs history is simply staggering.

Here's an excerpt from the Smart Planet interview (emphasis mine):

"The mission should be to invent without the pressure of making products," she said. Sure, companies like IBM have massive R&D arms, but it’s not the same as Bell Labs was. "For this scale of research the government has to be involved to collaborate with industry and top universities," said Wei.

IBM's research and development arm comes close to being in the traditional mold, but a lot of those ideas get productized. Intel, Microsoft and other tech companies have significant research efforts. On the government side, there's DARPA and other research efforts that may or may not get funded. And universities contribute valuable research. Of course, Alcatel-Lucent and Xerox would argue Bell Labs and PARC, respectively, still have the innovation mojo.

The rub: Today's research efforts are largely independent and have products in the background. Sure, there's some collaboration, but it's unclear whether the U.S. still has that innovation secret sauce. Where's the research that will set us up for the next two decades?

Now it's possible that Dai is just being a bit nostalgic, but I think her yearning for Bell Labs is notable. The questions: How do we get back to Bell Labs' glory days?


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