A walk through the commercialization process

How do new products get created? Where did many of the innovations we enjoy today have their beginning? The answers are often found in universities and federal laboratories. But they are also found in small businesses in our own communities. It happens through a process known as technology transfer.

Technology transfer is the process of translating research results, scientific discoveries or processes and methods into a commercially useful product. In many instances, this process results in translating knowledge and innovation into high-value products, services and jobs.

For decades, the small business community has contributed a major share of new products and services, innovative technologies and revolutionary business models.

In an INC Magazine feature entitled “Creation Nation,” senior writer Susan Greco notes: “A range of small companies, from invention labs and industrial design firms to all kinds of entrepreneurs — from independent record labels to consumer-goods manufacturers — are behind corporate American’s newest products. And not just in industries you’d expect, like trend-dependent toys and R&D-intensive pharmaceuticals. It’s a phenomenon happening everywhere, from high tech to hip-hop.”

Technology alone is not normally very valuable unless it is developed into something useful. Many technological innovations from the laboratory are never converted into a saleable product, service or process. Even fewer are highly profitable. But for those innovators who persevere, the road to commercialization is a labor-intensive — albeit rewarding — process with many steps along the way.

Once a useful product is developed from a technology, the entrepreneur must be prepared to launch the product, that is, introduce it to those who will buy it. Then comes the continuing production and sale of the product and the development of a company to support those processes. Each of these steps is complex and requires resources, capital, initiative, perseverance and more than a little luck.

The first step in developing your product is to ensure that the technology used in that product is scientifically sound and that the product that results from that technology can be protected by patent and/or copyright.

You should also devise a plan for product development that includes how the product will be released to the public. Should the product technology be licensed to someone else, developed and produced by the technology owner or sold to someone else to develop? You will need to make initial estimates of the size of the market and its willingness to accept the product as well as determine the costs of fully developing the product.

Actually launching the product — putting it on the market — involves more extensive market research, which should lead you to a formal plan for selling the product. You will need to include detailed cost estimates and financial projections in this plan. As you look for money from banks or other sources to support the production of your item or service, these estimates will be critical.

After you first introduce your product, you may need to refine it. And, of course, you will want to protect the intellectual property involved in the product’s development, finalize your design, test the product and add any features to make the product more marketable.

At this point in the commercialization process, additional resources may come in handy. You may need to consult an outside professional to acquire financing, develop a business plan or company structure or create a marketing plan for your product. You may determine that you need to incorporate and begin to finalize partnerships and legal agreements. Market and product testing are ongoing during this phase of the commercialization process.

Assuming the product is well-accepted by the market, you may want to develop your business to include the acquisition or expansion of manufacturing facilities, marketing and promotion, financial analysis, strategic partnerships and planning. You will need to re-examine your organizational structure and resource needs. You may also need to add staff.

Assuming that the business is growing and prospering, it may be appropriate for you to pursue new or companion products or improved technology. As your business grows, you will need to continually assess what you need to take advantage of the opportunities you encounter.

Consider that many of the items we take for granted today began at an inventor’s bench. Achieving that kind of success wasn’t easy, but most entrepreneurs will tell you that the satisfaction they enjoy as a result of seeing their innovations on the market is worth the work required to get them there.

For more information on product development, commercialization, sources of funding or marketing strategies, review the materials available on the MO SBTDC Technology Development and Commercialization website. Experienced technology development and commercialization staff can provide the information and linkages you need to make your product development effort a success.

– Wes Savage, former director, University of Central Missouri SBTDC