Prith Banerjee, Ansys CTO Explores Different Horizons of Innovation and Digital Twins

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s Boundary Breakers series, an ongoing exchange with executives and industry observers on the business impact of new tech.

Essentially, Dr. Prith Banerjee, CTO at Ansys, is an educator, at home evangelizing the possibilities of engineering simulation to audiences of customers, partners, academics, analysts and media.

This talent for distilling and communicating knowledge is not surprising given that Prith spent the first 22 years of his career in academia before moving into the tech world. He left his post as the Walter P. Murphy professor and chairman of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Northwestern University to found AccelChip, which was later purchased by Xilinx. “My thinking was it’ll take me so long to transfer this piece of technology from a university to a company, let me do a little startup that focuses R&D on that one area,” Prith said.

He then held executive positions at enterprises including Accenture, HP and Schneider Electric, before joining Ansys in 2018 as CTO. I got to chat with Prith recently on a wide range of topics including his take on innovation, the potential of simulation in healthcare, and his thoughts on intriguing emerging technologies. What follows is an edited version of that conversation:

What does digital transformation mean to Ansys and to your customers?

Digital transformation is basically using digital technologies to drive business transformation or outcomes. When we talk about digital technologies, it’s the use of simulation to drive product innovation and to mimic a product so well that you don’t have to build a physical prototype.

In the past, every time you created a new physical prototype for a product, it took three to six months, which would prolong the product launch and increase the cost. What we do is simulation-based product innovation, allowing our customers to explore thousands of different designs simultaneously on the computer without having to create a single physical prototype.

What do you see as barriers to digital transformation? Is it less about technology?

Absolutely. It is all about the organizational, cultural, personal and process barriers. For example, there was a time when airplanes were designed using wind tunnels. Engineers would take a design for a new wing, put it inside a wind tunnel, and set the fans at 600 miles per hour to test whether that wing would lift or not.

If we then tell those engineers that everything can be done through simulation instead of the physical process they’re used to, they’re a little resistant to embracing change. You have to win them over, and the organization they work for has to let go of the old analog processes and adopt the new processes. The culture of the organization has to embrace the new digital processes and be okay with them, that is a barrier to digital transformation.

“The culture of the organization has to embrace the new digital processes and be okay with them, that is a barrier to digital transformation.”

You have direct experience of innovation flowing from academia to startups to profitable businesses. What are your thoughts on that process, what works and what doesn’t?

I have this general theory that there are three horizons of innovation. Horizon one is what companies do. You have a current product and then tweak it according to customers’ needs and feedback. This is incremental innovation. For academia and startups to go into horizon one-type innovation is a meaningless exercise, since companies already do it so well.

Horizon two innovations address market adjacencies. So you already offer a transformer in North America and you’re now trying to develop a transformer for the Chinese market with a different voltage. Companies also do this type of innovation pretty well.

Then, there’s horizon three, which is completely crazy, disruptive innovation. It requires long-term R&D and will take you five to 10 years to bring to market. This is the area that academia is good at and that typically large companies don’t do so well, or only do a little.

So, it’s key for tech companies to work with universities and with startups who are imagining how the world will be disrupted. We’re doing both, partnering with 50 to 60 universities and with one thousand startups. We give them access to our tools and work together. Once startups get to a certain point, then they will become our customers or they may create a technology which we may ultimately acquire.

“It’s key for tech companies to work with universities and with startups who are imagining how the world will be disrupted.”

Which technology has taken a little longer to catch fire than you expected? Why is that?

People have been excited about digital twins for the last three to five years, but 2021 is the year when the technology will start having a major impact. It is at the cusp of an inflection point.

Four things have happened simultaneously which are making digital twins a reality today. We now have at-scale IoT platforms which go from the edge to the cloud, we have unlimited compute power and storage, we have access to tremendous amounts of data, and we have open source software like Caffe, PyTorch or TensorFlow. If you want to start a little AI or digital twins project, it’s so easy to get started. You can go to the cloud, pick up some open source software, and put it together.

Which industry’s use of simulation are you particularly excited by?

Healthcare has yet to adopt simulation in as significant a way as other industries such as automotive, aerospace and defense, high-tech, manufacturing, and oil and gas. They’re all using simulation as a way to drive innovation.

With healthcare, one exciting area we’re working on is how to model organs of the human body to create digital twins. For instance, the heart, where we can develop an electrophysiology simulation as the heart beats, the muscles contract, the valves open, and the blood flows between the chambers of the heart. It’s a generic human heart, but our vision would be a personalized approach.

So, we could take a patient’s MRI scan and develop a specific simulation of that individual’s heart and how it would react to the insertion of a particular model of pacemaker. If that R&D work is successful, we could help enable medical device and equipment companies to invent new product innovations, and then apply for FDA trials, purely through in-silico trials. That is the vision and would drive digital transformation success for healthcare companies.

“With healthcare, one exciting area we’re working on is how to model organs of the human body to create digital twins.”

For you, which emerging technologies hold the promise of transformative use cases?

Two technologies—blockchain and quantum computing. I would like to see what might happen if in future they were applied to our area of simulation. For instance, what if I carried out a simulation for a piece of equipment, and could validate that action with my signature through some kind of a blockchain? There could be undisputed proof that yes, I ran that simulation.

Blockchain could be a way to handle smart contracts to prove that I’ve delivered 1,000 defect-free brakes to you and I should get paid because there are certifications of that simulation testing. I also think that blockchain applied to product innovation could be hugely disruptive.

Today, we use linear computing, we work in zeros and ones all the time, but quantum computers work with qubits and can run processes at Google speeds. Some fluid simulations today can take 100,000 hours, with quantum computers could those simulations run in a second? I don’t know, but I would like to find out.

Anything else that’s piquing your interest?

I’m also intrigued by the combination of NFT and blockchain in relation to art. My hobby is playing the sitar. Indian classical music is like jazz. Every time I play a particular raga, it sounds different, meaning that I only perform that particular rendition once.

Imagine if I uploaded that one performance with a NFT and someone loved it and wanted to buy it. Imagine with blockchain and NFT, how many people might buy it—I could just retire from Ansys and be a sitar player!