Harnessing the ability to cost-effectively and efficiently develop market-driven products and services is crucial for success in not only business today, but especially in government where stakes are high – especially for meeting requirements in the protection of people and property. I intend to present an easy-to-understand set of guiding principles and practical strategies to start and profitably grow a high-technology business or government agency activity, based on an emerging technology. Technologies with practical application(s) are nice, but do not merit the action of budget-conscious firms or governments (at every level). Ample references are supplied for the reader to delve deeply into the real-world public- and/or private-sector applications of these principles and strategies discussed below.
Having worked closely with a broad range of high-technology firms (start-ups to Fortune 50) for many years, as well as becoming the U.S. government’s first Chief Commercialization Officer, it has become apparent that money and resources nor clever ideas and passion alone guarantee the successful commercialization of an emerging technology. There are far too many references that could illustrate this fact. So, the question is: Is there a prescription to maximize the probability of high-technology commercialization success? “Yes” is the short answer. Applying the following five guiding principles or techniques provides a “running start”:
- Become a strategist who EXECUTES
- Continually ask hard-hitting questions of yourself, your teammates and especially potential customers or stakeholders
- Develop and implement a RAPID time-to-market/deployment new product development (and license vehicle development) process
- Form only “WIN-WIN” strategic alliances or partnerships to accelerate market entrance and penetration
- Develop metrics to monitor progress against goals, because “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”
Become a Strategist that EXECUTES…
Many people would be astounded by the number of businesses (both start-up to mid-size to large) that “muddle through” – meaning that a given company or organization is not implementing a well-thought-out strategic plan that incorporates customer or end-user requirements. Experience has shown, time and time again, that more important than the actual plan is PLANNING – the act of working together as a team to develop a well-thought-out shortlist of objectives, strategies to accomplish those objectives, and tactics to support those strategies. The actual strategic planning document or plan does not have to be thousands of pages in length, but rather offer a concise, easy-to-understand and EXECUTABLE set of actions easily communicated to the entire organization or group. Particularly in high-tech start-ups or governmental agencies, it is just as important to decide what not to do, as what to do. Far too many start-ups fool themselves in thinking the world “will beat a path to our door” because they possess a certain technology. This is indeed a very rare occurrence.
It is far better to focus, in a market-driven/end-user driven way, on a select market/market segment where you can create a sustainable competitive advantage in terms of being “BETTER, FASTER, and CHEAPER” and then, later, if appropriate, branch-out into other markets/market segments. Please note that even in government, better, faster and cheaper is critical as government is using taxpayer monies. Furthermore, many applications in government involve protecting/securing people. What could be more urgent or pressing than that?! References [1-7] provide detailed case studies of how commercialization success was achieved for a nanotechnology start-up I was involved with.
I am proud to say that I was honored to lead an effort that resulted in putting the first commercially developed/mass-produced nanotech-based product (of all items– an American baseball bat) in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. In addition, I was proud to present (before I ever thought of working in the U.S. government!) to President George W. Bush, at the White House, the world’s first nano-enabled bicycle which I understand he still possesses (and paid taxes on!). Please refer to References [8-15] for detailed information on the public sector’s emersion into the commercialization of technology, based on my direct experience.
Once again, it would surprise many to learn how relatively few high-tech organizations (start-up to large concerns) regularly ask crucial or critical questions regarding their business or agencies, in terms of their current/future customers or end-users, unsatisfied needs or requirements, gaps in their technology road maps, etc. To borrow a phrase from the Jesuits, it is critical to be “Contemplative-in-Action.” Too many of us just “muddle through” our corporate or government positions without asking, on a regular basis, things like “What business are we really in?”, “How do our products offer a “better, cheaper and faster solution?”, “What are our end-users’ detailed operational requirements?” etc. I have developed well over 80 or so questions that every high-tech organization should ask to augment their strategic planning process [see Reference 4].
Rapid Time-to-Market New Product Development Process
If there were only one thing that I could recommend to a person or group that decided to embark on commercialization of emerging technology, it would be to possess a rigorous new product realization or development process that maximizes product (or service) acceptance and success. All too often, high-tech firms and/or agencies rationalize to themselves that “you can’t monitor R&D.” FALSE! Metrics can (and are) used on a regular basis by successful high-tech companies (or agencies) around the world. If designed properly, a new product development process can rapidly evaluate, design, test and deliver market-driven product concepts. To illustrate the practical application of a generic new product development process, refer to References [5, 6].
Form “Win-Win” Strategic Partnerships
One often overlooked vehicle to cost-effectively and efficiently commercialize an emerging technology is the formation of win-win strategic alliances or partnerships. Quite often, large businesses and the government make ideal partners as they have established sales channels, integrated marketing programs, expertise and a need to constantly “innovate or die” to meet the ever-changing needs of their established and potential customers or end-users. It also should be noted that, in my opinion, the use of government grants and programs is only effective to a certain degree in the case of high-tech start-ups. Too often, to the start-up’s eventual demise, there becomes virtually total reliance on government grants as “revenue” by start-ups. Whether they mention it to you or not, VCs, angels and other members of the business community do not view government grants as “quality revenue” and most probably discount it in valuation estimates of a business entity. Having said this, when utilized properly in a win-win way, partnering with the government through the SBIR or larger programs is an excellent way to catapult or jump-start a business involved in an emerging technology. Refer to Reference .
In an analogous way, government needs to form innovative public-private partnerships, which I have written about for some time. Refer to References [9, 11-15].
Measure It to Manage It!
I have been often asked how it is that I could travel so extensively as a senior executive, yet “have my finger on the pulse” of any organization. That’s easy to answer: METRICS. With all the easy-to-use technological advancements made in generating, storing and retrieving data and information today, there’s no reasonable reason (even for start-ups) not to develop and regularly monitor progress-against-goals. This sounds like a simple practice to incorporate in a business or government agency, yet so many organizations do not exhibit the discipline to regularly monitor their progress (or non-progress). It is difficult – if not downright impossible – to effectively manage a business or agency without metrics applied to every functional area. Once again, some will lament, “You can’t monitor R&D.” This, quite frankly, is nonsense, as well-managed start-ups to large businesses learn to develop better technology and products according to agreed-upon milestones and budgets. Good organizations use a “back up to a back up” approach to build in schedule buffers and alternative technical pathways. It is true that one can not predict with absolute certainty that a new product effort or technology will pan out as expected. All the more reason to monitor progress against goals to “kill it,” before more valuable time and money are wasted. See Reference  for a practical treatment of this principle.
While many of the concepts presented here sound rather simple, their implementation on a day-to-day basis eludes many organizations – especially those trying to pioneer emerging technologies. Practical experience of serial entrepreneurs show that adherence to these principles can be the difference in “making it or not” for not only high-tech start-ups but new product/program initiatives at the largest of companies or government agencies. It is well beyond the scope of this article to provide in-depth treatment of the subjects we covered, but it was my intention to getting the reader motivated to explore these concepts further.
I wish to express my sincere thanks to all the many fine companies, both large and small, that he has had the privilege to work with either as a consultant, senior executive and/or board member that provided him a plethora of business experiences. In addition, I want to thank all of my former colleagues and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and The White House for their invaluable feedback and encouragement.