Xerox Moves R&D Headquarters to Boston (Kind Of)—Looking to Network, Develop Green Technologies, and Hit the Airport Faster

8/5/08Follow @bbuderi

Talk about telecommuting. As of a few weeks ago, Sophie Vandebroek has been running Xerox’s global R&D organization—comprised of the famous Palo Alto Research Center and three other centers in the U.S., France, and Canada—out of her new home office in Lincoln, MA.

As chief technology officer of Norwalk, CT-based Xerox and president of its research arm, the Xerox Innovation Group, Vandebroek used to rule the roost from the company’s Webster, NY, R&D center. But she decided to move to the Boston area after getting engaged to MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science Jesus del Alamo, whom she married last month. When they heard about her plans to move, both Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy and President Ursula Burns urged Vandebroek to find a way to keep doing her job. Now, after a few technological hiccups, Vandebroek reports seamless integration with her old office, down to her Webster phone ringing on her laptop and her administrative assistant there churning out documents on a printer in Vandebroek’s new home—while keeping it all behind the Xerox firewall. In this way, the CTO is personally exploring the future of work, an area where Xerox has an important business and research focus. Vandebroek might not make as many meetings in Webster (where she still plans to spend two days a week). But, she says, “I think to most people it will be completely transparent.”

When I met Vandebroek for lunch last week at the Green Papaya in Waltham, she explained how the move, though made for personal reasons, should benefit Xerox in several key ways. We also spoke of how her new work setup exemplifies the technologies Xerox is developing for the office worker of the future.

Here’s Vandebroek’s list of benefits of moving to Boston:

—It’s much easier to travel worldwide from Boston. Vandebroek is on the road all the time; indeed, she’d been to Logan Airport four or five times in the two weeks before our meeting. “There are no red lights between my house and Logan,” she says. “To be able to live in Boston makes my life so much simpler.”

—The great high-tech talent and innovation culture. “We have many connections, and I’m definitely looking to strengthen them even more going forward.” This includes relationships with venture capitalists, other companies, and universities (her group is finalizing selection of its second batch of Xerox Innovation Fellows, chosen from MIT students). Of course, Vandebroek will also seek to make new connections.

—Closer proximity to many top customers. Vandebroek says this “allows me to have more direct input and feedback from our customers on our innovation focus areas (I call these ‘dreaming with customer’ sessions).”

Speaking of innovation focus areas, I asked Vandebroek about the work she oversees from her new Lincoln command center. The Xerox Innovation Group, she explains, has some 750 employees in Webster; Grenoble, France; Mississauga, Canada (near Toronto); and Palo Alto. She identifies three big areas of focus:

—Smart document technologies. Much of this work is focused on improving productivity and simplifying workflows in document-intensive industries—medicine, law, finance, and so on. Natural language processing technologies developed at PARC and text and image content processing and data mining work at Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, for instance, can be used to facilitate such tasks as automatic scanning of documents for key facts relevant to a case: “When was Bob talking to the mayor, and where were they?”

—Mass customization. Here’s a stat Vandebroek threw out: the worldwide offset printing market is some $600 billion, still five times as big as digital printing. Xerox’s goal is to help “digitize all these mass-produced items and ultimately be able to [customize them] at the individual level.” The aim is to allow people to print just what they want—including certain sections of a newspaper or chapters of a book—on demand. “I think the more you digitize, the less waste there will be, and hence the better [it will be] for the environment,” she says. Much of this work goes on at the Webster center.

—Sustainability. This is a huge area of concentration for Xerox that overlaps work in the other two focus areas. It includes things like solid ink printers (Mississauga, PARC, and Webster), which Vandebroek says generate only 5 percent of the waste associated with laser printers; high-yield paper (Webster) made with a process that produces two times as much paper from a tree as conventional techniques; and reusable paper (Mississauga, PARC) that automatically erases itself after a set amount of time. Vandebroek says the reusable paper research evolved from Xerox’s anthropologists noticing that some 45 percent of paper in offices was going into the recycling bin within in 48 hours. Xerox has already made some prototype paper. The biggest surprise, and potential stumbling block, she says, is that user tests show that people want to control the amount of time it takes the paper to erase itself. That is a much more difficult technological problem than creating a product with a standard expiration date.

Vandebroek says she is looking forward to testing Xerox’s research ideas from her new home office. “I’m actually at the seam of experiments personally,” she says. “I’m always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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