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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Commercializing Emerging Technology

Recently, I have been working with a number of entrepreneurs interested in commercializing an emerging technology. Emerging to me means something that has been identified during research that has the potential for commercial application.

My advice to this group has been to encourage them and at the same time make sure that they are careful about the expectations associated with such an endeavor. I have first hand experience taking a research project and turning it into a product/service. The time to market, technical challenges and distance between the promise of the research and the actual practical commercial application was more then expected.

There are a number of steps that need to occur before a piece of research can reach its full commercial potential.

1.) Practical Research Application - In the lab the research needs to be applied to an actual business problem. This could be a small example of a larger problem or a piece of a larger business challenge. The goal of this step is to determine if a technology transfer is possible. Frequently, researchers work with focused canonical problems to prove a theory. This is not enough for moving things to the stage of technology transfer. Something more relevant to a day to day business problem is required.

2.) Product/Service - Can the research lead to a product or service that can be leveraged over a large audience? Even though the research can solve a business problem does not mean it has real commercial potential. A product that solves one company's problem does not qualify it for the commercial marketplace.

A product has to be easy to use and understood by non research personnel. If the product or service requires the expertise of a small group of highly trained individuals to use or implement then the research needs more incubation. Spend time creating tools that will allow the product to be used outside the lab. Think of ways the product could be simplified to fit into a known commercial environment. Scale back the product to solve a simpler problem. The simpler problem may have a wider commercial impact.

3.) Business Formation - A product or service requires a business to be built around it. This is an area that engineers and scientists find the most challenging. Even if you have an identified service or product does not mean you have a business. A business involves marketing, sales, support, development, business development, funding, etc. The promise of many a research and technology project has not come to be because of the lack or business acumen of the early founders. Bring real business people into the mix early in the process to help you understand and launch the business.

This process can take time. Much more time then you expect. Plan for this personally and financially. At each stage in the process there are risks. Geoffrey Moore's book "Crossing The Chasm" remains relevant today. I suggest that any aspiring entrepreneur that is contemplating moving a research based project into the commercial realm read this book. The book will help you understand where and when the biggest risks will present themselves.

To shorten the time to market and to decrease business risk I recommend that you pick an interesting piece of research that has already passed through the initial stages of technology transfer. The rewards for being first to market with a product or service are great if you can quickly get a meaningful pool of customers to adopt the product or service.

Good Luck!!!


Traveller said...

Another great post by Kevin. I have been lucky to take some advice regarding this, thanks Kevin.
There are always research projects around where there is a possibility of commercialization, but as the post mentions it usually is for a group of specialized individuals or just a very small domain area in the short run.
I agree with the importance of involving business personal early on in the project to start understanding the process.

Traveller said...

Geoffery Moore's Crossing the Chasm is a great book indeed. During my teaching assistant days for an Entrepreneurship course, I remember we used it as a reference book.

The technology adoption curve presented by him from early adopters to early majority is something which directly parallels for a startup focused on research.