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Prith Banerjee

10/6/2014 Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS

A surgeon steadies her hands in the washbasin, preparing for a life-saving operation. She picks up the scalpel and relays directions to the other members of her team to get ready. Instead of having to glance at a readout, the patient’s heartbeat and other vital signs are visible in the top-left corner of her glasses, and she uses a voice-command to call up an anesthetic flow diagram to make sure the patient is properly sedated. With everything set, she takes a deep breath and makes the first incision.

This sounds like something out of Minority Report, but it’s a working technology prototype, developed by researchers at Accenture Technology Labs, the global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company’s research and development organization. At the lab’s helm, directing the operations of five separate R&D facilities from Sophia Antipolis, France to Bangalore, India, is Prith Banerjee (MSEE '83, PhD '85), managing director of global technology and R&D at Accenture.

Prith Banerjee.
Prith Banerjee.

As the leader of a global R&D team, overseeing countless projects ranging from Big Data to the gradual erosion between the virtual and physical worlds, Banerjee’s job involves a combination of both high-level direction and selective micromanagement. He transitions regularly from discussions with Accenture’s industry leads about upcoming technology trends that could impact their clients in the next few years,  into checking up on the projects of individual researchers. Banerjee also discusses collaboration ideas with Accenture’s more than 400 clients and manages the company’s Open Innovation program, which creates research partnerships with startups, universities, and corporate partners.

Before joining Accenture, Banerjee spent a great deal of time in the academic world as a professor at ECE ILLINOIS, then in administrative roles as the chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department at Northwestern University and as the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he had his first taste of managing research and allocating resources.

“I had an excellent university career as a professor at Illinois and as department head at Northwestern and dean at University of Illinois at Chicago,” Banerjee said. “Slowly, however, I started feeling like the research I worked on, though it was groundbreaking, didn’t have enough of a direct impact on the world in terms of directly developing products and technologies to better people's lives. This was the impetus that led me to form my first startups, AccelChip and Xilinx, while also working at Northwestern.”

After managing two successful startups, which were bought by a public and a private company, Banerjee got the call from HP to head its research and development division, and after that, worked for ABB Group as chief technology officer before joining Accenture.

Much of Banerjee’s job isn’t simply telling his own company’s researchers what to look into as it establishes relationships with partner companies and explores how to work together to develop solutions to common challenges. Throughout his entire career, from teaching and managing resources in academia to conducting high-level R&D management at HP, ABB and Accenture, Banerjee has come to the somewhat counterintuitive realization that the best way to make a company competitive is for it to cooperate with other organizations, listen to their ideas and see how they can help each other.

“A lot of executives make this mistake of thinking that their company has to develop everything,” Banerjee said. “Any time I have an idea, chances are that a company somewhere is already working on it, and that company could be willing to share what they know or work together and further develop the idea. Instead of trying to go it alone, it’s important to listen to others and keep track of research happening outside your own sphere. It enables you to take advantage of partnerships and gain inspiration from what others are working on to further develop your own ideas.”  

Banerjee also believes that the best technological developments come from an environment in which ideas are shared freely and collaboration occurs openly and often. He goes out of his way to foster a culture of innovation, no matter where he’s working, whether it was at his first startups or in his current role with five laboratories under his purview. He makes a point of listening to ideas from people working at every level.

“Creativity and ingenuity come from the culture, so I want to enable my people to be free to innovate,” Banerjee said. “I work with people at all levels of management down to individual analysts and researchers, making sure everyone has their ideas listened to and can flourish, to get ideas from the bottom up, in order to help me with my vision.”