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  • Writer's pictureHoward Gerwin

Commercializing Promising Research

Sometimes you have a unique technology or material and you are sure you know the right markets and the customer value but it turns out that you are looking at the wrong application or the wrong customer

Dr DC led a team in the National I-Corps program (using the same methods that LeanInno uses and teaches). Her research led to the creation of a lightweight, high temperature neutron shielding material. Her team was certain that their new material had a home in the aviation and space industries due to the weight characteristics. They conducted more than 100 interviews with people throughout those sectors and found that, while their solution was interesting, there really was no pressing need for any changes. The industry had existing solutions and, while the new material had some interesting properties, it did not offer a compelling case to change. The team was disappointed and was willing to declare that there was really not a great product market fit.

They decided to conduct one more set of interviews to confirm their conclusions at a trade show. On the 105th interview, they found a new market segment, the nuclear power industry. It turned out that the material's unique combination of neutron shielding with a high temperature tolerance addressed a long standing need in the area of reactor fuel management. Reenergized, they did more interviews and found that there was a huge market with many interested customers, just not where they originally thought. The team established a company, applied for and received and SBIR grant to support technology maturation and have received numerous other grants and awards to get their business off the ground.

Key takeaways:

First: You should never narrow down your market research too soon. Make sure that your initial customer discovery exploration casts a broad enough net to make sure you capture the most possible customer segments. This is represented by the diamond shape to first diverge on customer segments, jobs to be done, and problems to solve, before narrowing to the few that are most impactful

Second: If customers are well satisfied with their current solutions, it will be very difficult to get them to consider a new approach. A key question line in any interview should be… Tell me how you solve this problem today?


Sometimes you find that your customers have needs that you can solve but they were not what you thought they were:

Dr MS led a team in the National I-Corps program as well. His research led to the development of a solution to reduce the risk of late spring frost damage to vineyards. The solution involved the application of a chemical solution that would encapsulate the buds on a grape vine and delay opening, reducing the risk of frost damage in late spring. The team started out with the hypothesis that the rich wine growing regions of Northern California would be an obvious market. However, after 20-30 interviews in that region, they realized that the land and the crops were so valuable, anyone with significant frost damage risk had existing mitigation solutions in place. Landowners had already invested in sprinkler systems, wind machines and propane heaters that would prevent late season frost damage and expressed no dissatisfaction with their current solutions. The team did learn, however, that potential future regulations on water usage and on propane heaters might cause them to be more interested in the future.

Using water to protect vines from late frost

However, they did learn some thing else. They knew that grape vines were pruned after the new buds opened in the spring. They found through interviewing that one of the biggest pain points for vineyard operators was the timely availability of skilled labor during the pruning window. Their technology, by impacting the timing of the opening of the buds on the grape vines, could help producers manage their workforce better by enlarging time windows for certain critical manual labor intensive vine pruning operations. Application of the bud-encapsulating solution could be used to slow down bud opening in some fields, allowing pruning to happen later.

Frost damage due to budding prior to a late frost
Frost damage due to budding prior to a late frost
Healthy vines - proper pruning and no freeze damage

As they continued their research, they also learned that the same issues (frost and labor) existed in orchards and vineyards in Washington State. This finding led them to consider discover additional technical requirements. The original solution assumed the spring rain patterns of the northern California wine country. Washington state has more rain in the spring. Expanding to orchards and a broader climatic area would require changes to their formulation. This information was used to seek funding and provide direction for the next phase of their technology development.

Key Takeaways:

First: Always take the time to learn about your customer's operation and what causes them pain. Once you understand what causes the pain, you can better assess the value and usefulness of your technology.

Second: Your customer discovery research can lead you to new directions in research and technology development. Be prepared to learn how your solution needs to be modified to suit the market needs.

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