Saturday, April 5, 2014

Xerox Research Center India: High Potential Late Entrant to MNC R&D in India

Xerox is a legendary company that not only created the modern dry process for paper copying, but then continued to dominate that industry for a couple of decades. Strictly speaking though the “Xerox” process was created by Chester Carlson who then sold the technology and patent rights to the founders of the company that later took on the name of its core technology.

There are a few noteworthy things about Xerox that often feature in my teaching:

  • A number of leading companies of the time including IBM failed to see the value of Chester Carlson’s patents and declined the offer to buy the patent rights. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder!

  • Through a combination of technology advancement and building a strong patent wall, Xerox managed to keep competitors at bay for almost 20 years, a feat that is almost impossible in today’s world of rapid technological change.

  • Xerox started losing its stranglehold on the industry when it was disrupted by a set of enterprising Japanese companies including Ricoh and Canon. They leveraged their competence in building copiers with a small physical footprint (ideal for space-starved Japan) to create a new market for small copiers in the United States. By selling small, reliable, economically-priced copiers they avoided a direct confrontation with Xerox that dominated the large corporate copier market with machines leased to central administrative offices backed by a strong service network. As often happens in such disruptions, Xerox was unable to respond to this because its leasing model tied it down.

  • One of the big ironies of Xerox’s loss to the Japanese copier companies was that Xerox’s own affiliate in Japan, Fuji Xerox, was a pioneer of the small copier technology that was so cleverly exploited by Canon and Ricoh. Yet, in Xerox, as was typical of many large multinational enterprises at that time, technology flowed only one way, from parent to subsidiary, and the company realized the value of its own assets too late!

Xerox Today

Xerox today is a very different company from what it was in the past. I knew that they had moved away from the core copying business to digital documentation at some stage, but wasn’t aware of their present business mix till recently. Thanks to the acquisition of ACS, an IT-services business focused on the US transportation and healthcare businesses (medical record processing; parking systems; transportation fleet management, etc.), Xerox has moved away from its legacy business. More than that, it has successfully avoided the ignominy faced by its Rochester twin, Kodak (which had to file for bankruptcy). IT services accounts for about 60% of Xerox’s topline.

Innovation at Xerox

Xerox figures in innovation lore for an important reason that I didn’t write about in the opening section – its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was the source of a number of technologies that have changed the IT and computing industries. George Pake, one of the PARC founders, predicted an “office of the future” in 1975 that bears an uncanny resemblance to what an office looks like today. The Graphic User Interface (GUI) was invented at PARC; Bob Metcalfe, one of the inventors of the Ethernet worked at PARC too. Laser printing technology was another major PARC invention.

Unfortunately, PARC also features as the most prominent example of a company research center whose output was exploited by everyone except its corporate parent! As is well known, Steve Jobs was an important beneficiary of PARC’s pioneering work!

Today, like other large companies, Xerox has a network of R&D and innovation centers across the globe. 

As a company, Xerox has more than 60,000 patent grants since inception!

Xerox Research Center India

Xerox Research Center India (XRCI) is a relatively recent addition to the Xerox network and is only a few years old (it was started in 2010). It’s the first Xerox research center in an “emerging market.”

I recently had the privilege of giving the keynote at XRCI Open 2014, the first major innovation event organized by XRCI.

 XRCI is small by Bangalore R&D centre standards, but has a focused team of high quality researchers. I found ex-professors from the IITs, PhDs from top US schools, and some people with considerable experience from other MNC R&D centres in the group. XRCI is led by Manish Gupta, a respected figure in IT R&D in India who spent much of his professional career at IBM. Manish led the IBM Research Centre in India till a couple of years ago.

I liked XRCI’s efforts to reach out to the academic community at this event. They had professors from a variety of institutions like IISc, IIIT Delhi, IIT Madras and IIT Kharagpur, apart from students from all over. The posters represented the work of both the academic and Xerox communities, thereby promoting cross-fertilisation of ideas.

A distinctive feature of XRCI is that they have 3 ethnographers on their rolls. I am not sure of the origins of this, but apparently thanks to its interest in work practice research, globally Xerox has embraced ethnography as an important element in its approach to innovation. And I am really happy to see XRCI following this trend.

Apart from my session, I attended an interesting panel on “Smart Cities” – the gap between the chaos of our cities and the ideal smart city of a slick power point presentation is so large that I sometimes wonder about the relevance of such panels. But, I suppose it is exactly this chaos that provides the opportunity to bring intelligence into managing things better.

Areas of Work at XRCI

 Analytics, big data, and crowd computing are some of the big buzz words at XRCI. Mirroring some of the priorities at Xerox, XRCI applies these approaches in multiple areas including healthcare, transportation, education and customer care.

Healthcare is being transformed by IT, but there are also big opportunities. According to some estimates, the value of healthcare fraud exceeds $70 Billion. IT can help reduce this. Quality can also improve – tech evangelist Vinod Khosla predicts that 80% of healthcare can be handled better by software. These are obviously great opportunities for an IT and analytics driven R&D centre such as XRCI.

Researchers at XRCI are working with their US colleagues on non-contact diagnostics through video. The objective is to see under the skin and into the body using near infra-red waves. A combination of Physics and Biology then enables measurement of some essential body parameters. XRCI has a neonatal collaboration with Manipal hospital to do “thermal videos” of infants to check their respiratory performance and temperature. Similarly, there is the potential to detect breast cancer through thermal means instead of using mammograms.

Another area is decision support for clinicians. XRCI is working on stroke severity prediction. An accurate prediction can not only save lives, it can help in optimum use of scarce hospital resources. Prediction is currently at the 80-90% accuracy level, and the effort is to improve it further.

Other current areas of interest at XRCI include traffic flows, and related issues like mobility demand and optimization of public transport; workflow automation applications in banking; and bridging the paper digital divide in education by working on SPOC based solutions for engineering education. For the “official” version of what XRCI does, visit their site.

The XRCI Opportunity

Overall, I found a quest to combine local needs with global applications. Most MNC R&D subsidiaries in India (see my earlier posts on IBM, Cisco, Bell Labs India) have found that if you want to do interesting stuff based on working with the Indian ecosystem, it helps if you work on problems that also have global relevance – that gets greater buy-in from the business and makes commercialization easier. Manish is using his experience with IBM to bring in this kind of thinking early at XRCI, and this bodes well for the future of XRCI. By the standards of other MNCs, Xerox may be a late entrant as far as setting up R&D in India is concerned, but it has the opportunity to make quick impact! 


  1. Your advice of "work on problems that also have global relevance" is relevant for academic researchers as well. The top conferences look for papers that have global relevance.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful post. Your talk at "XRCI Open" was an informative and insightful one. We rarely see so many recent examples of innovation from India with deep analysis of why something became a grand success and some others did not.
    -Shourya Roy