Robert Loce: Building Idea Communities

“Robert Loce is the first person in the nation, possibly in the world, to receive a Ph.D. in imaging science” began a 1993 newspaper profile of the then-35-year-old Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology graduate.  Bob Loce had joined the Xerox Research Center, Webster, New York, in 1981 as an optical technician, received his first patent in 1987, his 100th in 1993, and his 177th and latest (for producing enhanced prints on large production printers) in July, 2013.

During the same period, Loce advanced at Xerox Research to   principal scientist and technical manager in the Systems Lab. He was recently made a Research Fellow and has received several other awards and honors, including the 2010 Anne Mulcahy Inventor Award.  Admired by colleaguesfor his versatility, he is a Registered Patent Agent, a member of the Xerox panel that evaluates the technical merits of inventions proposed for patent application, an active mentor to younger inventors, and recent lecturer on “Intelligent Transportation Networks via Video Imaging” for an online Coursera course on the TechniCity.

Innovation Management Report’s Editor Michael F. Wolff began the interview by asking:

Before we get to inventing in a corporate environment, what is it you do in Systems Lab?

We have a lab in which people are grouped by the competencies they have and not by the projects they work on. My group works in computer vision, video processing and imaging systems. I work to develop their competencies, hire more people in that area and get them on good projects where those skills can be used.

Xerox has been transitioning into business services, but more specifically, which issues or problems are on your plate, getting the most of your attention right now?

A tremendous amount of the world’s information is now in video. The number of videos that are loaded up to YouTube and FaceBook every day is just astronomical, and a lot of that data can be mined for useful information. How does a retail store use the data from its surveillance cameras to optimize its operations, for example?  How are cars being driven on this road ¾ are people making more left turns than we expected?

A lot of information like that is only held temporarily and deleted.  So people are asking us to mine their data for information they can actually use. That’s a large part of our activities right now.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle recently reported on your work training computers to recognize human gestures.

Just imagine if you could mine images from a subway camera showing a passenger’s threatening actions. Or be able to alert a hospital nurse when a patient was having trouble.

Brett Stern’s wonderful book, Inventors at Work, devotes a chapter to his interview with you in which you claim that your favorite invention would probably be your next one.  Well, among your 177 already-issued patents (and 55 pending), is there one that stands out as giving you the most satisfaction, or that you found the most rewarding?

They are so different in character that I’ve got favorites for different reasons.  For instance, there were patents on the laser scanner for the 4850 series of printer products we had years ago. Black, white and color could be printed in a single pass by exposing the photoreceptor at three levels. That product brought in about $250 million in revenue a year for probably a decade. It was my most lucrative invention and had a big impact on the business. That was very satisfying.

There are other inventions that I appreciate for their creativity. My very first one resulted from some of my best spatial thinking. It was in the 1980s when we had regular copiers. As you know, the intensity of the light falls off as you move away from the axis of the optical system. We were trying to find inexpensive ways to make the light more uniform. I began thinking about unusual shapes until one day I was going for a walk and I saw a golf tee in a parking lot. I started playing with this shape in my head and realized that a truncated golf tee placed in the middle of the optical path would make the field more uniform.

I really liked the spatial thinking in that one, but it never made it into a product. So I have respect for that idea from a creativity and spatial thinking perspective, but businesswise it didn’t make it because we took another path.

Where do you find most of your problems? Is it inspiration from taking a walk, is it an idea-jamming session at Xerox, or something else?  

Times have changed and for some of us researchers it’s actually for the better.  Today we’re working on such a diversity of problems that impact society in all different ways that we can see interesting problems just in our daily lives that might lead to lines of business for Xerox.

In the past, our problems were mostly in the printer realm: How can we make this image better, how could we reduce the cost of this machine, how do we get the ultimate image quality?

Today you see something and think you could do it better and know there’s an outlet for it at Xerox that wasn’t there in the past. It might be in electronic medical records, transportation, surveillance, speeding up a process at a store, preventing loss from theft, and more. How can I transport images my doctor took around a network much more easily? How can I do surveillance to help with Amber Alert? Opportunities like these have been quite a broadening for us.

Do you find these problems on your own or do you participate in more formal brainstorming or jamming sessions? Are those exercises something you find value in? 

I do find some problems on my own. Some. But a great many are developed in a team, not so much in a classical brainstorming session. The vast majority of my patents are done with a team. We work together; we each add creative things; we add ideas about how to make it practical.

It’s not like you read some books on brainstorming and take courses. I’ve found most of those to be useless. Most of us are just inspired by the real problems and we start interacting collaboratively.

I think you could throw out all of those brainstorming courses if you’re working with people that have an attitude of, “I’m going to put ideas out there, they might not be perfect, and you might do the same and we’ll work with each other to refine them. Maybe I’ll find what’s wrong with it; maybe I can improve it.”

If you’re working with people with that mindset, all of these formal brainstorming sessions don’t seem to matter.

Who gives the team the problem to work on?

Problems get put on our table in two ways. We can have completely new ideas and work on them to some level, explore them and then present them to our lines of business as something new we’ve been working on that they might be interested in. That’s when we’re trying to push a new idea out there. The second direction is when lines of business come to us and say, “We have significant needs; please help us develop this new product, or please help us solve this problem.” That’s when they’re pulling us for ideas. We have a good mixture of both.

When we interviewed your colleague Jim Larsen (IMR Fall 2010, p.10), he stressed that industrial innovation is a team process. You’re saying the same.

Yes, definitely. I have 177 patents and in almost every one of those cases everybody on the team had a significant role in building the idea.

That leads to being a corporate inventor. What do you believe are the most important skills a corporate inventor needs? And what can the management do to nurture those skills? 

I don’t want to use clichés like “think out of the box” because then people who don’t really think out of the box start thinking they do because they use those terms. I think one of the most important things is that you don’t need everybody in the organization to be inventive but where you’re trying to build an inventive core you want those people to be a little bit thick-skinned so they can criticize one another.

However, that criticism must be of ideas — not personal. People can put an idea out there and somebody can criticize it positively, negatively, both ways, build on it, or find the flaws. But the people you’re working with have to understand that none of this is personal and you’re working toward a common goal.

You’ve got to build a community of people like that, people who can think of new things and are not afraid to push a new idea because the people around them might find issues with it. When you’ve got that sort of community and people feel comfortable with each other, the ideas will really build up.

Sometimes you might have a solution in your head and by the time five or six people have banged it around you end up with a very different solution. As long as people don’t feel like they own their original solution, and cling to it, the idea can evolve into something very good.

You’ve got to get people who really want to build the idea and not simply stake their claim on some little space and then get offended if people don’t go with their idea. You’ve got to build a community of people who like working together in that way.

What can senior management do to encourage the formation of these communities of idea builders?  

For one, they can reward them as a team and not focus on any one person. That way people will tend to build that sense of community more. I think we’ve done that within our own community at Xerox. I don’t feel like we compete with one another here. I feel like there’s competition outside—but in some ways let’s not worry about the competition.  Let’s just worry about solving a real need. There may be competitors, maybe not, but let’s just solve something.

You don’t want people to feel like they’re competing with each other for best invention in Xerox this year. I think it’s best for management to reward a team for inventing or delivering something rather than just a few individuals like best inventor or best deliverer.

You have stated that a research scientist has to be very comfortable with failure. Is that part of your job requirement for corporate inventor? 

Yes. I had a manager who said that if you’re in corporate research you should be leading the way, showing the way the technology should be developing, and if you’re not failing a certain portion of the time, you’re not defining the envelope of what’s possible.

If you’re successful every time, maybe you didn’t reach far enough and maybe there’s more possible than what you tried to do. And so you should be working near the edge of that envelope of possibility. If you’re not getting some occasional failures, you probably aren’t working close enough to the envelope.

Do you work close to that envelope? 

Different communities in the Research Center work in different ways. The people who are more the inventors and work more in exploration have to work closer to the envelope. The ones who are delivering and passing the final work onto a business group for them to implement in the field can’t really have failures. Your failures have to diminish as the project gets more mature.

You’ve said that your career has gotten to a point where you do a lot of mentoring. What career advice do you offer the younger Xerox people whom you mentor?

I usually push my people in the direction of lifelong learning. I ask them every year when they’re laying out objectives and thinking about how this year will go, what are some of the significant things they going to aim to learn?  Because if you’re in a research environment and you’re not constantly learning, you’re not going to be a researcher very long. Your career is going to come to a pretty hard stop.

If you continually learn, it can be very rewarding personally. You feel the growth. You can continue to contribute to a company at a high level; you can continue to contribute in society in an innovative way. I believe learning to enjoy lifelong learning is an important skill. If you really enjoy lifelong learning, then you can have a really good long-term career in research.

I believe you’re a volunteer teacher in the public schools.

I haven’t been in the last year or two. I’ve gotten too busy. But I was volunteering teaching science. It was great. I got to teach geology and dissect frogs. I was teaching plate tectonics! I was doing really cool experiments.

I was a geology major for a short time! I’d make a big pile of shaving cream on kids’ desks and that would be the magma. And I had balsa and some denser woods that would be continental and oceanic plates. I would have the kids make all different faults. I would show them how to make earthquakes. I would have the Pacific plate with weak spots where the kids would form the Hawaiian Islands by pushing shaving cream from a magma plume underneath.

I was doing things like that. I was dissecting frogs and fish, and teaching physics.  I was having a lot of fun.

Did that help you with your inventing? 

I’ll tell you one way that it may have helped. I had a manager very early on who encouraged his people to do science consulting in the schools. He said that if you can communicate science and technology to kids, then you probably really understand it and you can get it used by other people. If you can only describe your idea in some really complicated way, you might not fully have all the intuition behind it. Also it might not be well used if you can’t communicate it well. I’m thankful he gave me that advice. It was very good advice.

Let’s talk a little about your own career. Where do your talents come from? How did you get to be the first person in the world to earn a Ph.D. in imaging science?

Some of it goes back to the two big influences I had in my early life. There was our family farm where I was every week (and which my grandparents eventually sold to Rochester Institute of Technology). Also, I grew up in the Space Age, with the Apollo missions.

I wish the next generation had some of the inspiration we got from the Apollo mission. I think that built a generation of scientists and engineers. It inspired us to get into those fields. We don’t seem to have something like that to inspire us right now.

So to me there were two cool things in the world: there was science and there was farming. I knew my life was either going be in science or farming.

My family didn’t have a lot of money. I went to Monroe Community College, in Rochester, New York, which was a great way to start. One of the best programs I was in in all my years was the MCC optics program. It was a two-year degree in optics where you got hands-on experience in everything from grinding and polishing your own telescope lens to working with lasers and interferometers.

So I started out that way and just went through the whole progression and saw what was available and what was interesting to me personally and what I thought Xerox could use.

After I joined Xerox in 1981 I went through a four-year photo science program at RIT. Then the University of Rochester where I got a master’s degree in optics.  Then I went back to RIT and got the Ph.D. in imaging science. A few years after that I passed the patent bar exam because I was getting more involved in the legal aspects of invention at Xerox.

How did the farm influence you?

For quite a few years I helped train horses on the farm. I haven’t been doing that so much lately. But up until about 10, 12 years ago I helped my uncles with the horses there — mucking stalls, riding, doing work out there.

In what way did that feed into your interest in science? Was there a connection? 

Not so much in science, but being outdoors on the farm sort of morphed into being in the woods and mountaineering. I do a lot of hiking. I just finished the Adirondack 46 with my kids. It’s 46 peaks above 4,000 feet. Some of those require 18-mile hikes in a day, sometimes wading through swamps. I just did some the other day with ice axes and snowshoes. When I’m out in that setting I get refreshed and a lot of my problems wash away and the slate is clean and I can start fresh when I get back.

Finally, what next for Bob Loce? 

That is a tough question. The question’s a lot easier when you’re younger and you can see there are many steps ahead of you. At this point I have mentored a good group of people here. And I’ve built up a nice competency in our center. I want to continue to do that. But I have a critical mass going, which I’m very happy about. I can continue to build that with a little less effort since I’ve got that critical mass in place.

Now I’d like to turn my vision and some of my energies a little bit more outward into getting Xerox to be involved in more large government grant activities and having us play in a bigger arena that way. Using my knowledge of what we can do at Xerox and what can be done in technology in general, how can I marry our competency here and the competencies in Rochester’s large optics and imaging center? How can I bring those competencies to larger government problems?

Optics has been identified as a key technology and economic driver in our country. I have a long history with that. If I can start playing a bigger role to marry some of our competency in the community at Xerox and the community outside of Xerox, if I can start leveraging that into government programs, grants, large government projects, that’s the way I’d like to head.

That’s a good note on which to end. Thanks, Bob.


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