Getting Your Tech Out of the Lab: Creation is Easy, Commercialization is Hard
An entrepreneur developing a new technology must go through two phases – creating the technology and then commercializing it.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned on all this in the past five years is that creating technology is the easy part. Getting it accepted and getting it commercialized is downright frightening.
First, an entrepreneur identifies a problem to be solved, for personal, ethical or commercial benefit. Some basic steps follow: researching past solutions (and possible future solutions), formulating a theory why the new solution can work, diagramming the idea, building a prototype, creating a mini-version of a new process (or producing a limited amount of new material) and initial testing.
The entrepreneur is either the scientist or the inventor or both; often, that person will work closely with a business associate who can develop a company around a successful solution. It’s difficult being the person who does the research and also being the person who deals with the business stuff – accounting, government regulations, IP protection, tax laws and so forth.
In the case of Energystics and our patented Vibristor technology, I had already run my own company as a medical oncologist, so this was less of a problem. But even with my previous experiences, I needed help. CEBIP has made a world of difference, with its educational components and the availability of business-formation experts who augmented my business-formation knowledge.
The next big challenge is funding. Depending on the technology at hand, the entrepreneur likely needs relatively limited amounts of capital at first – enough to fund research space, utilities, materials for building the prototype, basic construction and testing equipment and perhaps some technical consulting or labor services, if necessary.
Our first prototype was for an ocean-wave energy-harvesting device. And it worked. But wave-energy harvesting is a massive and highly regulated undertaking. So, we shifted gears to more consumer-oriented applications – which required further engineering, further analytical testing, the hiring of marketing personnel and the production of new prototypes.
That all meant more money and more time. We pursued a personal electronic energy charger, a navigational buoy, a charger for off-road mountain bikes, even a vibrational flashlight, and built prototypes for all of them.
Once the prototyping and testing are complete, the focus shifts to getting the technology out of the lab, and now the inventor will likely need capital, and lots of it. Accounting services, legal services, construction of a commercial-grade product, materials for a limited stock of the new technology and all those ongoing, fixed overhead expenses are now in play.
Unless the inventor’s partner is a CEO with an equity stake in the company, he or she also has to hire a salaried expert to provide business-development skills.
Then the inventor has to explore and apply for grants, develop a “pitch deck” to lure venture capitalists, conduct marketing research, set up operational field testing and arrange for production, regulatory compliance and safety testing.
This all takes a huge amount of time, effort and money. And while an entrepreneur may be fortunate enough to have the personal funding to finance the research phase, it’s virtually impossible (expect for rare exceptions) to self-fund the actual commercialization phase.
Many companies are successful at developing very good, potentially disruptive technologies in the lab, only to die off in the “valley of death” of commercial product development. For various reasons, none of our attempts to commercialize the Vibristor tech has yet borne fruit, but stay tuned – we have people very hot for the personal charger and other potential applications.
Research and development of a new technology is hard. But it’s easy compared to the challenges of getting that technology out of the lab and into the world.