Technology Development vs Product Development, Pick One, You Can’t Do Both At Once

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After an animated heated conversation last week with a new entrepreneur who was busy trying to build an end user product for a technology component that was not yet working or capable of being manufactured, I felt the need to highlight one of the little known but big traps on the path to commercialise new technologies.

This post is for the scientists, technologists, lab guys, engineers and inventors and their managers who develop the technology stack rather than the people who use it.

Note, I am specifically talking about the development of new technologies and products which derive from technological, scientific or engineering developments from Universities, Labs, or Inventors.

Hardcore STEM tech development rather than mobile apps whipped up in an hackathon on a weekend, the sort of developments that made smart phones and apps possible such as GPS, camera sensors, accelerometers, languages, processors, platform technologies or 1000s of other components/parts/materials of the technology stack that enable our modern world.

It has been said that every new sensor developed creates a billion $ year business and in the case of components such as solid state GPS, accelerometers, magnetometers or gyroscopes have basically enabled the smart phone and helped create new industries which are counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

If there is one thing you get from this post, understand that the smartphone revolution and massive growth in apps and web platforms would not have been possible without the 10000s of scientists, inventors and engineers in labs and Universities who worked out how to take processors, disks, mechanical gyroscope, GPS and accelerometers the size of engines and turn them into 5mm square solid state chip that can be soldered on to a PCB robotically and programmed. Likewise Chemists, Electrical and Materials Engineers who worked out how to build touch screens and OLED displays.

Most people can’t name these scientists and engineers, sadly they get little of the fame, glory, or wealth but without them there is no Steve Jobs….

Product Development vs Technology Development

Its critically important to understand these are not the same thing, although they are frequently treated as the same thing by most people.

Most people cannot separate the two.

The STEM Technology development process is not very sexy. Taking Science from idea to early stage prototypes, materials, chemistry, chip fabrication and the thousands of experiments may be attractive to the hardware geeks but it doesn’t result sexy consumer items and nor should it.

Nor is it very fast. Everyone who wants you to build a product expects it next quarter, yet STEM developments created from basic science or materials research can take years or even decades to productise.

Your job at this stage is to prove the technological development actually works and you have a pathway to making it into a component or deploying it commercially.

If you have worked out how to make the most sensitive touch screens, or a new type of medical sensor this does not qualify to you to build an iPhone or wearable competitor.

Product Development on the other hand primarily deals with the design and integration of technologies and materials that others have developed.

Often this blurs when we look at a company like Apple where they do both often at the same time in dozens of different fields and so its easy to think that you can also do both at the same time.

The important thing to note is that Apple has $100 billion in cash sitting in offshore accounts. They have hundreds of technology development companies working for them as well as their tens of thousands of their own product development people, they can do whatever they like but you have to stick to your knitting.

Generally speaking you can’t do both. You are not Apple.

Even Apple doesn’t do it all, they have hundreds of components developed and manufactured by other companies.

Your Role

If you find yourself in the position where you are developing the next big new sensor or some new non trivial technology or material it is critically important not to get confused about your role in the world.

Your job is to develop the life changing but not very sexy technology, not the beautiful shiny new product that all your friends will be talking about over dinner.

Its easy to get drawn into the flashy world of product development with the sexy sketches and mood boards, lovely materials and finishes long before the technology is ready to be integrated into a product.

Don’t fall for the trap.

Everyone will be sprouting the Lean Startup model to you, Lean Startup however is the wrong model for hardcore STEM technology developments. I have seen too many STEM startups prematurely pushed into markets where they are putting resources into product development for a technology that still hasn’t been proven.

So much time and effort is wasted in trying to develop product features that should be used to complete the tech development.

There is little point talking to 50 customers in a specific market and building specific features if you still don’t have a proven technology that can be productised.

Yes you should talk to customers, but most likely they will be a product manufacturing business, Apple, Samsung, HTC, Xiaomi, not end users who will wear the products that they make.

I have personally lived through this mistake more than once (both my fault and VCs/managers) and I still carry the scars.

The Trap

This is where the trap is laid. When you are developing the next generation chip set, screen, networking technology or wearable sensor, its very tempting to start to visualise and try to build the actual product that your technology will enable.

Imagine for a moment you are developing a new sensor that can sense real time ECG from a watch (not really possible without holding it with both hands).

Its very exciting, everyone wants one, the market is potentially massive, excitement is high, management is rubbing their hands in anticipation of big headlines and big deals.

Everyone around you will be egging you on, they will be pushing you to build the next Apple Watch, Fitbit, Jawbone, iPhone or Nest.

The Lean Startup movement will have you asking 100s of end users about what you should build for them, where they want to wear their new technology, what it should look like and how it should operate.

Step back for a moment. Some science only works in particular ways, places and methods.

Just because a consumer wants it in a particular way doesn’t change basic science and wishing doesn’t make it so.

You can’t put an ECG on your head and expect it to work because it needs to be positioned on opposite sides of your body. Measuring temperature on the fingers is a waste of time because its several degrees lower than your core temperature and is effected by external temperature, your clothing and your fat/muscle composition.

The temptation will be to start mocking up or even prototyping industrial designs of what a device using your sensor might look like.

Pretty soon you will be looking at plastics, rubbers, materials, metals and finishes, injection moulding, spending money on Industrial Designers and Mechanical Engineers, often before your new technology is even able to be proven in the lab.

You will have people at your company or University pulling you into customer engagements, trying to sell the product (that doesn’t yet exist) or license the technology (that isn’t yet proven).

Everyone is already mentally spending the cheques from the massive exit they think is coming.

Very few people understand the process of getting science to product, its murky and very few people have the secret recipe.

In the history of our world there have only been a handful of wizards who have been able to make the jump across from technology development to product development.

Normally technology and product developers are separate teams in separate companies, the technology developers largely spend years developing the tech in labs and end up get little recognition or money for their work. Their name rarely appears on the product that the public gets to know and love.

On the other hand the product developer gets rich and looks like a rock star. Its an understandable temptation to want to be a rock star.

But here is the rub, if you are resource constrained like most companies you can’t do both. You will convince yourself you can and everyone will be encouraging you to do both.

However heed my warning, if you are still trying to develop the technology so that it can be deployed into product and you start trying to build a product you will almost certainly fail.

Few companies have the cash or the human resources to do both.

If you find yourself doing any of the following take a deep breath and make sure you have done everything to prove out the underlying technology before you start building a product.

Warning Signs

  • Brainstorming what the new case looks like
  • Engaging Industrial Designers
  • Trying to understand Injection Moulding.
  • Building software apps for a product whose technology that hasn’t been proven yet
  • Sales reps trying to sell the new wonder product before it even has a viable production candidate.
  • Requests to ship demo units to customers (cracks me up)
  • News stories about the latest wearable being constantly forwarded to you or compared to your project
  • Thinking you can get a product to ship in under a year
  • Trying to arrange production or packaging
  • Writing marketing copy

If you find yourself on a project where this is happening, run away, the ship is sinking, if you are running the project stop it now and focus on getting the tech out the door.




Image Credit Micky Aldridge CC


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