SRI International, a crackling idea factory tucked away on a campus in Silicon Valley, might want to do the same today. It's not that SRI is a Rodney Dangerfield, getting no respect. Every now and then a publication will rediscover the nonprofit R&D lab that brought us the computer mouse and helped prove that the Internet was a real thing. In fact, the folks at SRI have literally painted the walls with excerpts of glowing news stories about SRI's place in the innovation economy.
It's just that in a valley obsessed with Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Facebook, it can be hard for an institution working on big problems to be heard above the noise. It's as if SRI is the person behind the curtain in the valley's version of Oz.
"People use, usually, two or three or four SRI technologies every day," says Curtis Carlson, SRI's CEO. "But they don't know where they came from."
Carlson wouldn't be the first Silicon Valley CEO to overstate his organization's importance to the world, but actually he's got a point. Yes, the mouse and key parts of the Internet are from SRI. But so are key contributions to HDTV, color movies and television, email, ultrasound, the airline reservation system, portable television cameras, check cashing, solar power, Siri, surgical robots, speech translation and Disneyland. Yes, Disneyland. Researchers from SRI identified Anaheim as right place for the happiest place in the world.
Think about it: SRI has been innovating in the valley for nearly as long as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). The lab, launched in 1946 by Stanford University, but no longer affiliated, has been around three times as long as Google. And it's more than twice as old as the founder of Facebook.
It has 2,500 employees and an annual budget of $550 million. And it's developed a system of teaming up with academics, companies, nonprofits and whomever is the best in their business to move innovation forward.
I got to thinking about SRI and its legacy while visiting with Carlson in an SRI conference room. One of the many things we talked about was SRI's spiffy new Timeline of Innovation feature that the lab has added to its redesigned website. The breath of inventions depicted and the ways they've been deployed reminded me that while innovation often involves a stroke of genius, it's much more than that. More often than not, innovation involves pushing forward the ideas of others; or adding a little of this and a little of that to an invention that was almost there.
It turns out we're most likely to encounter SRI's work after it's been repackaged and redeployed. So, Siri becomes Apple's voice recognition system. SRI's surgical robots become Intuitive Surgical's million-dollar-plus da Vinci Surgical System. The lab's work on social video becomes micro-video app Tout. It's not by accident. SRI is in the business of inventing things and systems that ultimately turn into products.
If it were ever true that research labs, like those at Hewlett-Packard or PARC or SRI, could ponder blue-sky experiments without consideration of the bottom line, it certainly isn't true today. Carlson preaches, literally to every new SRI employee, his recipe for innovation. In short, each researcher must be able to explain the need he or she is trying to fill, why a new method would be better than what's already available and what benefit the new idea would bring to a potential customer.
And while the lab is all about tackling very big problems in the area of chemistry, computing, education, medicine, national security, economic development and more, it is also on a serious mission to launch startups that will take its technology to the masses. Which is why among the wet labs, robotics labs and computer labs on campus, you'll find a door labeled "Value Creation Lab."
Siri, the loyal iPhone assistant, is a perfect example. When the artificial intelligence technology behind Siri started to show promise, SRI recruited a team of technicians and eventually business minds to nurture the product. "We spent several years incubating that," Carlson says, "and the issue wasn't the technology. It was the business plan. How do we make money?"
Eventually, Siri spun out of SRI as a company, which Apple purchased in 2010. Yes, Carlson has an iPhone. No Siri has not mentioned their special relationship in conversation. "Siri doesn't know who I am," he says.
Which brings us back to the question of whether SRI itself is somewhat anonymous. Carlson says he believes the world is coming to better know SRI through the products it has spawned. And he believes we are in a golden age of innovation.
In other words, it could be that when it comes to SRI, the world hasn't seen anything yet.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
Online To see SRI's Timeline of Innovation, go to www.sri.com/work/timeline-innovation
SRI, which brought us the computer mouse, ultrasound, and everyone's favorite personal assistant, Siri, is not resting on its laurels. Among the many projects researchers are working on today are:
bRIGHT: A computer user interface, pictured above, that, through facial recognition, a series of other sensors and computing power helps machines anticipate what it is computer users want to do.
FAST: A sophisticated scanning system that can help identify and isolate a single cell (tagged with a pink dot at right) indicating cancer and providing doctors with information to chart a course of treatment.
Robotics: Among the projects is work on Taurus, a robot that could be deployed to inspect suspected bombs, including IEDs.