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ILP Institute Insider

May 5, 2010

Making the Right Connections at MIT

British Telecom’s (BT) Strategic Relationship

Marie-Teresa Vander Sande

Jeff Patmore, Head of Strategic University Research for British Telecom (BT), knows the value of making the right connections at MIT, connections which will help BT and its businesses. In fact, BT, one of the world’s leading providers of communication solutions, is so committed to the concept of connections that it has named its new laboratory in the MIT Media Lab’s new facility, “BT’s Lab for a Connected World.”

Jeff Patmore

BT‘s most significant investment at MIT and longest-lived relationship is with the Media Lab, but BT is also deeply involved with the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Research Lab for Electronics (RLE), MIT Sloan School and the School of Engineering. And BT has been a member of the MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) for more than 10 years.

“BT’s strategic relationship with MIT is one of the key pillars to the company’s open innovation strategy, ensuring BT people have access to leading-edge technical and business thinking,” says Patmore.

To derive maximum value from BT’s relationships with MIT requires face time with academics and students to identify opportunities that can serve both the company and MIT. But spending time at MIT is not just a matter of attending consortium meetings or conferences or meeting with faculty through ILP visits, although BT does all of these. Patmore believes in the importance of embedding BT at MIT. Specifically, one of his people, Steve Whittaker, Head of University Programs US, and a Visiting Scientist at the Media Lab, spends three of every four weeks at MIT, headquartered at BT’s lab. And Patmore manages to spend at least one or two weeks at MIT twice a year to meet with people through ILP and other relationships.

Value of Interesting Conversations
In his nearly eight years as Head of BT’s Strategic University Research, Patmore has learned the importance of seeking out the right places at MIT to take advantage of encountering people to engage in interesting conversations.

“It’s about sitting down over a coffee and having conversations about innovation and new technology. Those conversations wander around and we think about how these new technologies might affect us in both business, but also in the way in which we work. And it’s that intersection that happens all the time we’re here that allows us to think differently about our business,” Patmore explained in a recent video http://ophelia.media.mit.edu/downloads/bt.html

Patmore is particularly proud of the results of one of those serendipitous conversations, in this case, with Dr. William Lucas outside the Café in the lobby of Building 7. Lucas, whom Patmore knew from BT’s involvement with the Cambridge-MIT Institute, is now Director of Research for the Gordon-MIT Leadership Program (GEL) in the School of Engineering. Intrigued by Lucas‘s description of GEL, Patmore offered to host a summer intern at BT Research. Patmore interviewed junior Tanya Goldhaber (‘10, MechE) and immediately offered her the internship. “She had so much drive and enthusiasm that she ‘bounced,’” describes Patmore. Tanya spent the summer of 2009 at BT working on the future of TV services. “She did extremely well, designing a new type of interface for TV content whereby friends make recommendations in real time through Social Networks at the same time that a recommendation engine is running. Tanya designed a new way to interface with services that is a radically different way of doing this. We were very, very impressed with her.”

Tanya has continued to work with BT following her summer internship, producing an animated visualization of future TV services for BT sales and marketing people.

Research on Future TV
At the same time, BT has connected with other researchers at MIT around the topic of Future TV: Marie-Jose Montpetit at RLE, Henry Holtzman at the Media Lab, Professor Muriel Medard, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and RLE, and Dr. David Clark at CSAIL. Patmore is also chatting with MIT Sloan people on a potential business model. “Working across departments is helping BT bring new ideas to develop new services,” explains Patmore.

“Managing” Serendipity
Patmore believes that this could not have been done without BT embedding people within the Institute, spending real time with academics and students. “Managing” serendipity is what Patmore calls it, placing oneself in a position where good things can happen so that occasionally they do happen. “If we only attended a consortium meeting or a conference, this wouldn’t be so likely.” Interjected Steve Whittaker, “Our ‘strategy for serendipity’ is not confining ourselves to very specific objectives and targets. Our belief is that if we are a part of the ecosystem, we can add value.”

Recently, Patmore was invited by Prof. Medard and Dr. Montpetit to give a lecture to a class of engineering students on Superfast Broadband fiber-to-the home that BT has introduced in the UK, covering both strategy and technology. “The students are very conversant with deep engineering, but Medard and Montpetit wanted to expose them to how such technology can be used in the real world. Both Steve and I are very happy to give back to MIT in this way,” explains Patmore.

Key Client Program and Projects for MBA Classes
Shortly after taking over as Head of Strategic University Research, Patmore established a Key Client Program at BT to develop a strong set of links to the BT businesses: BT Openreach, BT Retail, BT Wholesale and BT Global Services. Three times a year, Patmore meets with each of 12 key clients from the groups to inform them of new research and learn about important issues. Depending upon the issue, Patmore formulates a problem for an MBA class (short, very focused business issue) or a research question for BT Research or a university or collaboration between the two.

The idea of using MIT MBA students to focus on key strategic business issues over a few weeks originated with MIT Sloan School’s Henry Birdseye Weil several years ago. Since then, Patmore has applied this model to the UK where in 2009 there have been four MBA and two MPhil projects at the University of Cambridge, all providing insight into core issues. At MIT this year, BT has provided two new projects for the Digital Business program, which are providing strategic input to the company in Cloud Computing and Enterprise 2.0.

Open to Opportunities
BT derives tremendous value from working with ILP, according to Patmore. Tony Knopp, BT’s Senior Liaison Officer at the ILP, identifies interesting people that BT would not necessarily interact with – a tremendous amount of brainpower. Patmore emphasizes, “You have to be open to opportunities, not expecting that every meeting with a faculty member will produce a result.” Sometimes it’s simply an introduction and Patmore and others keep the faculty member in the back of their minds. “But 9 out of 10 times, something comes out of the meeting that will be of use. Tony helps us maintain a very broad relationship with MIT.”

“MIT is full of incredibly bright people. If we get the model right, there is enormous value,” concludes Patmore.