As I’ve discussed before, lots of best practices for technology transfer offices (TTOs) also apply to startups. To leverage that insight, I recently spoke with entrepreneurs in New Hampshire about how to get great feedback from prospective customers when getting a startup off the ground, offering a new product (or service), or breaking into a new market.
Similarly, in the tech transfer world, licensing success can be optimized by obtaining robust and comprehensive market feedback through expert interviews. This feedback will inform your strategy for approaching the market as you ramp up to marketing a technology for licensing.
For example, when we were helping a client commercialize a suite of infrared imaging technologies used for non-destructive evaluation (NDE) of structural composites, we spoke with a range of potential licensees, including:
- Companies that use this type of imaging to ensure the quality of their own products
- Manufacturers of the cameras or systems that would incorporate our client’s innovation
- Firms that provide NDE services
With the feedback we gathered from these various types of market players, we developed a two-part licensing strategy. The short-term plan was to non-exclusively license the software portion of the suite to end users in order to build user confidence and experience with the technology. Armed with this intermediate demonstration of value, our client would then be well-positioned to eventually license the patented portion to a manufacturer to build into their camera/system in order to gain a competitive advantage.
So with 15+ years of experience gathering market information for technology transfer opportunities, here’s what Fuentek has learned about how to get the best feedback.
What Do You Want to Know?
Before you contact market experts, think about what insights you are seeking. Mostly those questions will—or should—focus on the market’s need for the technology, how it would be valued, and what aspects would be key to licensing interest and market acceptance. How strong is their need for this invention? How well do technologies currently on the market address their need? How much would they value what this new innovation can give them? Through what channel would they want to purchase it?
Who Has Those Answers?
Next, identify the target group(s) that can provide the most useful insights. As the imaging case discussed above shows, you want to get as many different viewpoints as are relevant. This may include large vs. small companies and established vs. emerging players. If the technology is broadly applicable across many markets, the perspective of a player who has an angle in only one market is different from someone who could extract the technology’s full commercial potential.
The variations could even include factors such as geography, role/job title, or their place on the value chain. For example, when evaluating the commercial potential of a technology to be used in elementary schools, a startup I mentored got very different feedback when they spoke with principals (who had a more executive role) vs. the office managers (who were manually performing the service the software would automate) vs. the IT department (who would be implementing the startup’s technology) vs. the parents (who would be end-users). Perspectives also varied in big vs. small schools, public vs. private schools, southern vs. northeastern school districts. For the company’s ultimate success, understanding and addressing all of these viewpoints would be essential.
What’s in It for Them?
When preparing to introduce yourself to your target group(s), ask yourself: Why should they want to talk with me? Get inside their heads and figure out what is important to them. Then prepare a concise and clearly worded statement about why you’re seeking their feedback. For example, to an auto part manufacturer:
“I am seeking feedback on an innovation that would allow the auto industry to take advantage of the superior performance-to-weight ratio of carbon fiber technology for structural auto parts at a price that is competitive with steel. Because your company is a leading supplier of those types of parts to the auto industry, I would like to share some information about the technology with you and obtain your insights and feedback on potential market interest.”
Before the Interview
Think about the interview in advance; that way, you’ll be more likely to ask better questions that will elicit useful responses. Write down your questions and put them in a logical order. This list is not so much a word-for-word script as it is an outline for the discussion.
Also, keep in mind that some of the industry players you interview might not be experts in the technical aspects of the subject invention. For example, depending on their role in the company, they may not understand technical jargon. So keep in mind what they are likely to know (and not know) and frame the discussion accordingly.
During the Interview
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of rambling on without pausing to allow the other party the chance to respond, particularly if you’re a little nervous or if the technology is your “baby.” Make a concerted effort to listen more than you talk. Rather than trying to convince the interviewees of your perspective, listen to and really try to understand their perspective; it’s their reality.
Also, listen “between the lines,” keeping an ear out for interesting avenues for discussion that you might not have considered. If you have to veer away from or extend your planned line of questioning, so be it. To the extent they have the time and willingness to talk with you, take full advantage of their valuable insights.
When Do You Have Enough?
Talk to as many relevant people as is reasonably possible. How many is that? It depends on the technology and the market. If it’s a niche technology, then talking to just a few market players is probably fine. A broadly applicable technology will likely warrant more interviews, since there are likely more perspectives that would be useful for you to understand.
It also depends on what kind of investment you’re about to make. If you are deciding whether to patent a technology or invest a few thousand dollars in funding additional development through a translational funding program, speaking to a few market experts likely will be sufficient. But when you are ready to undertake a major marketing effort or provide significant support to a researcher-led startup, you’ll want feedback from a lot more people in the market to make sure you’re investing your resources wisely.
Analyze the responses critically and ask yourself: Did the market tell me that this technology is truly needed? Are the competing technologies already out there good enough that the market is unlikely to switch? Do we have the information we need to make a sound decision about whether and how to move forward?
This type of information is crucial as you ramp up to marketing a technology transfer opportunity (not to mention for a host of other situations where market data can be put to good use). Because let’s face it: Your resources are not infinite, and not every invention that comes into the TTO can be successfully licensed. Get the best market feedback so you can invest your precious resources in the technologies with the highest potential.
As you probably realize, gathering this type of market feedback is part of what we do here at Fuentek. If you would like to tap into our expertise to identify which technologies in your intellectual property (IP) portfolio fulfill a market need, contact us today.