Monday, February 6, 2017

Find Your Innovation "Sweet Spot"

As my colleague, Carla Pavone, has described well in previous posts, bridging the chasm from invention to commercialization is a challenging adventure that all too often fails to result in successful new ventures. While risk is inherent in innovation and entrepreneurship, we can mitigate the risks and increase our probability of success--or at minimum reduce the amount of valuable time and resources we devote to ideas that won’t succeed. For STEM innovators, success begins with the recognition that crossing this chasm is a “different game” than discovery and invention.

Basic research focuses on the discovery of new knowledge without thought of practical ends. Translational and applied research represents the first step toward identifying practical applications of scientific discovery and knowledge to solve problems or unmet needs outside the laboratory. And finally as we move to the right across the chasm, commercialization involves translating new ideas or IP into customer solutions that generate social and economic value.

Navigating the chasm from invention to commercialization requires a broader mindset, tool set, skill set and network than we typically develop as inventors. It requires that we find an innovation sweet spot.

As illustrated in the model below, technical feasibility is necessary but not sufficient for commercial success. First and foremost, a commercially successful idea must solve a problem that matters to a customer segment(s). As venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla has said well, “If you don’t have a big problem, you don’t have a big opportunity.”


Next, an innovation idea must be desirable to the target customers you hope to serve and be perceived as better than the existing alternatives at a reasonable cost. Your idea may be objectively superior from a technical/functional perspective, but this doesn’t matter unless the target customers perceive it as better than existing alternatives based on their functional, social and emotional needs and expectations.

Once you have validated your idea through customer discovery you’ll need to ensure there are enough of these customers comprising your target market to make commercial success viable. Assuming you have a differentiated product that customers want, is the market robust enough to ensure you can sustain profitable growth over time?

Finally, you will need a revenue and business model that effectively converts your technical inputs into value for your customers and economic outputs for your company.

This helps explain why the best technology does not always win. Just because a technology is superior does not mean mainstream customers will adopt it or that the market is large enough to justify the required investments in developing, manufacturing, distributing and servicing it. By recognizing the critical impact of these additional variables on commercial success, we are able to AIM for success by (1) Anticipating a broader set of questions and issues to explore, (2) Investigating the opportunities and risks present in each arena, and (3) taking deliberate action to Manage our way through these realities. This ability to “de-risk” the fuzzy front end of innovation is key to commercial success.

MIN-Corps offers a variety of programs to help students and faculty AIM for success as you explore the commercial potential of your innovation ideas and IP.