As technologists, R&D scientists, commercial leaders, product managers, business developers and marketers, we’ve collectively seen tens of thousands of technologies, many with the potential to become great products, and many others that should never have seen the light of day. Often, a major portion of our job focused on identifying those unique technologies that had the potential to address a critical and unmet market need.
We’ve taken our years of experience and distilled them down into some practices to help companies, big and small, make decisions about how and when to bring the right technologies to the right market. Why is it important to find the right fit for a technology? Let’s consider a real-world example.
Long ago, in small technology park that has since been razed, there was a little biotech firm named ABI that had had demonstrated some success in making automated polypeptide and DNA synthesizers. They later developed a product called the Gene Scanner, which combined a number of innovative features and technologies. It used fluorescently tagged DNA, real-time image scanning, on-board electrophoresis, and sophisticated software to automate something scientists all over the world were doing routinely: agarose gel electrophoresis. Gone were the worries of manually staining gels in nasty intercalating dye baths, putting on the UV gear and pulling out the Polaroid. Huge commercial success? No. It turned out that while scientists ran agarose gels all the time, the will and desire to sink a lot of money and lab space into automating this routine task wasn’t there. Think about trying to sell every household an automated toast buttering robot, and you get the idea. So ABI’s big investment in technology innovation, development, and commercialization was a bust. But the next application of the technology did a bit better.
Image courtesy of Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
The determined scientists and engineers at ABI thought that there had to be a good use for their technology. So they tried using it on acrylamide gels, applying it to DNA sequencing instead of fragment sizing. In retrospect, this application seems obvious, but if you thought about the things scientists were doing at the time, agarose gels were ubiquitous, and the set of scientists routinely doing higher volume DNA sequencing was considerably smaller. There were some technology challenges to address (e.g., higher resolution scanning), but some issues became much easier (fragment sizing using reference standards wasn’t required, and the regular pattern of frequent, evenly-spaced bands with sequencing was in some ways a much more tractable problem from an analysis perspective). It took an iteration or two to get the system right and working well, but this launched the first generation of automated DNA sequencing systems, and made ABI a technology leader for decades to come. Automated DNA sequencing didn’t just make a routine lab process more convenient, it accelerated the pace of research. Veterans will remember putting autorads down for a few days in the minus 70° to get a good exposure. It eliminated the need for radiolabeled nucleotides and made the workflow faster and easier. The engineers at ABI had a powerful technology from the beginning, but it took them a couple of tries to find the right technology/market fit.
So taking a rigorous approach to find the right fit for a technology is a very important first step towards achieving commercial success. We often get called-in to help companies think about the right market segment/application fit for their technology, and we try to be rigorous about this combination of art and science, in a way that we can make our assumptions clear, specific and testable. This initial assessment of where a technology might rise to the task of meeting customers’ current or future needs is a frequent starting point for our work.
THE CHRYSALIS RECIPE FOR IDENTIFYING TECHNOLOGY/MARKET FIT
- Go wide. Make a list of all the industry segments where your technology might play. You may have been focused on research applications for your bacterial monitoring technology (say, gut microbiome induced cell proliferation in C. elegans), but maybe there’s an opportunity in agriculture (perhaps soil metagenomics monitoring), you’re missing. Don’t limit yourself to the obvious ground trod upon by your competitors, and be sure there are at least a couple of implausible-sounding options on your list. They may turn out to be diamonds in the rough.
- Get specific. Think about the real problems your technology could solve within those different segments, and then describe those applications in a step-by-step manner to understand the demands on the entire workflow from sample to answer.
- Go deep. Build a high-level list that represents the union of requirements across all applications within all segments. Keep the key requirements technology-agnostic. Then put this list in the rows of a spreadsheet, and categorize them by class.
- Be brutally honest. Rate how well your technology addresses each requirement, using a scale that is as objective as possible. Don’t be shy to note where you fail miserably, or succeed admirably. This is one of the places where an external viewpoint may come in handy.
- Determine the pull. Rate the importance or “pull” of each requirement for each market segment/application. The goal is to characterize how essential, how irresistible, or conversely, how irrelevant each requirement is to a buyer/user in the target segment. Try to keep this as objective as possible, which generally means limiting the scale to something you can agree on with at least two of your colleagues.
- Find the fit. Use this as a scoring system to build a heat map of where there’s a strong fit for your technology. It’s useful to see both overall score, and also where really key and/or difficult requirements are well met, even if it falls short in some other ways. This matrix can give you a visual and analytical tool to understand where a (potentially minor) change in functionality could open up a whole new market.
This kind of technology/market segment/application fit is only one of many pieces helpful in figuring out where to focus product development and commercial efforts. It doesn’t address competitive landscape, market opportunity, pricing, channel strategy, etc., but we’ll talk about some of these in future postings.
Copyright 2017 Chrysalis Biomedical Advisors