HP/Agilent has been into hospital gear and analytical chemistry for ages. A few years back, Agilent acquired Varian Inc, who had a bunch of chemistry and NMR gear. They recently decided to shut down the NMR operation.
Yup. We beat them about 15 years ago when they gave up intravascular ultrasound. It was like Davis vs Goliath. Later I met one of their engineers at a winery and he said "You guys put us out of our jobs". Luckily he didn't hold a grudge and we had a nice conversation.
We didn't talk much about this at the winery as it wasn't a pleasant topic for him. But I've heard rumors. My take is that they could not keep up with technology in that field. We had a fully electronic system without moving parts and thus no image distortion due to non-uniform rotation (because nothing rotates). They had a mechanical transducer system with a IMHO sub-par image quality. We had color Doppler which is a very powerful tool for cardiologists because it shows intravascular blood flow with local patterns in realtime, right from inside the problematic area in a coronary blood vessel. They couldn't really do that because they only had an old-fashioned mechanical system. And so on.
Companies have tried to copy our technology and failed (don't know if HP every tried). And it sure isn't easy. There are five ICs, 64 transducer elements and some other stuff in that thing next to the penny:
We had the top notch semiconductor equipment makers turn us down with words like "This can't be done" or "You've got to be out of your mind". So we designed and built some of our own production equipment.
Maybe HP was subsidizing poor sales and gross margin with profits from other sectors and eventually could not hang on anymore. But I don't know the internal details.
In other words, HP allowed themselves to be outclassed. This is not typical of HP. This has to have come from upper management at HP.
My guess is that the HP engineer at the winery knows by name who was to blame, and they were HP management of some high level.
That's quite the process. But HP should have been able to do this too.
My instinct is that HP was milking the business by underinvesting in R&D, until the inevitable happened. They may not have realized that they were flying the business into the ground - many a big floppy company has done this. But in its heyday, it would be HP outclassing everybody else. This is a sad story for sure.
It's easy to blame someone. This usually has more than just one reason.
From a resource point of view they should. However, I believe that most of the progress in technology no longer originates at big companies. They are often too much after "planned invention" which then leads to incremental improvements instead of total outside-the-box thinking.
In the 90's when starting out self-employed I've sent proposals to various companies, about all kinds of ways how to improve their systems. In hope of gaining interesting consulting assignments, of course. From the big ones I usually received a "We don't need this" or no answer at all. So I started to prefer small companies and one of my proposals went to the company above who built this IVUS scanner. It was about a new kind of beamformer, cheaper and much smaller than the current state of the art. The phone rang. "You think this works?" ... "Yeah, I am quite certain" ... "Shazam! Let's do that!"
Big corp often can't do that anymore, they are like a huge ship that can't turn on a dime. Nowadays they resort to buying the innovative small companies. Case in point, the above company is currently in the process of being acquired by Philips Health Systems.
That heyday is long gone. When I graduated in the mid 80's many of my mates eyed companies such as HP. One reason was because they treated their employees very nicely. But for me they didn't have enough sizzle so I joined a smaller outfit. Which also knocked some large corp competitors and was later acquired by Philips Medical. It was so extreme even back then that we became rather unafraid of competing larger companies.
The best chances in innovation are with one-person companies. After about 30 years on the beat I firmly believe that.
Well, yes, but in big companies it always traces back to someone with money to spend who choses not to, more often than on from fear of failure.
Used to be that HP, despite being big, managed to innovate and upset everybody else's applecart. But somehow HP lost its mojo. May be because Hewlett and Packard had both passed from the scene, leaving only risk-averse MBAs.
I can well understand this.
Well, I'd say 5-person companies, although most such companies have a dominant person.
Much of it also has to do with the corporate culture in companies and that can change, often gradually. For example, a serious innovation blocker can be the introduction of matrix management. That's when true project ownership can go out the window for lots of people. Such changes are generally not decided by a single person but by a committee of some sorts such as the board or all of upper management.
There are exceptions and I have worked with some large companies as clients. Their key to success is empowerment. They give engineers a project and let them decide how they go about it. Lots of freedom. They are also free to seek external help from people like me if that benefits the product and won't blow the budget. Often I have sort of an eternal consulting agreement that gets renewed every year. Then the company use me like a dentist, only when something hurts.
Although I have to say that their ultrasound machines which was my turf when I started out in the 80's never struck me as earth-shakingly great. Much smaller competitiors excelled in that market. Not once did I have the urge to visit their booth at shows like RSNA or Medica. Neither did I for Siemens.
That was very different for Acuson, a small company in Menlo Park led by Sam Maslak who is a true visionary. They upset everybody else's apple cart on a yearly basis. Needless to say, they were acquired as well. By Siemens Medical about 15 years ago.
Then there is the tiny company VingMed in Norway which always made the best Color Doppler machines. They were later acquired by General Electric whose machines were also rather bland before that.
That's one problem companies have once they are not run by engineers anymore. But being run by an engineer also has its risks. For example, Borgward in Germany made, even according to American car mechanics, the best cars. But the engineer who ran it didn't seem to have the business savvy and political clout required to control the world around him well enough so he got cornered in by the bigger manufacturers.
Yep. Until then I thought that only existed in start-up stories. The company we founded based on my idea was a start-up but it was fully financed by Endosonics, so not truly a start-up in a business sense.
That size can also work well even with a dominant person. But only if that dominant person has the enough vision and spunk. I've had such a company as a long term client. The only thing that brought the ride to an end was when the owner died of cancer in his 80's. But his ideas (and thus some of mine as well) are living on as products and it's a joy to see that. He went out with fanfare, fully active to the end.
Aside from consulting I am currently part of a 4-person start-up. It's exciting. The key is that we all have decision making freedom, our CEO does not micro-manage.
Yes. I've worked in many large companies, and my observation is that the innovations came from projects that management was not interested in, and so left alone. It was necessary that management didn't care if the project failed, because many such projects will fail. The venture capital rule of thumb is that if the fund ten startups, two will fail immediately, two will succeed, and the rest will putter along. It is the one or two that succeed wildly that support the entire enterprise.
We customers knew this, and considered vendors like HP as the best mix of risk and reward. Products from small companies usually lacked polish, and always left some areas a bit rough. But if the innovation was large enough, we lived with the roughness.
This is a very common way for big companies to innovate. The usual objective is to acquire the people, not simply the products and patents.
I'm not sure that being run by engineers is key, versus visionaries who may or may not be engineers. The classic example is Apple Computer -- Steve Jobs was not really an engineer (it was Woz).
Yes. Small groups like that don't work unless the personalities are compatible. I said 5 persons mainly because it's too much for a single person to accomplish in a reasonable amount of time.
I recently got cured of that. A big corporation makes patient monitors so I bought one for an engineering project. One feature didn't work and all it needed was a code to unlock a particular software routine. Called in, credit card in hand. Turns out they dumped that products and only a few years after discontinuation they chucked all software upgrade key codes. To me that borders on stupid.
In ultrasound it mostly was large enough. We had shoot-outs in clinics where the flagship systems of big players were left in the dust.
However, many times the people do not feel alright in a big corp environment and leave.
True. But IMHO Apple is not a company that excels in innovation. It is one that excels in marketing and making (some) people so dependent that they absolutely must have their new products all the time no matter what. Apple did not really invent computing on a personal level, IBM did. And that's one of the few eamples where a truly big corp succeeded. Only to screw it up many years later.
The whole scanner rides at the tip of a 3.5 French catheter and it is hollow so that the usual 0.014" guidewire glides though the center. We also made some versions with balloons on there, typically used for stent placement. It's a nice business because these transducers can only be used on one patient and must then be discarded, no way to sterilize them in the field.
I see the paper states "single-use disposable". Any reason why? Did some top notch semiconductor equipment makers say they "could not be decontaminated"? After all, you proved they were wrong in the first case...