Breaking Through the Barriers of Commercialization

There are numerous articles about the difficulties of transitioning nascent technologies from research into early stage commercialization.

A common thread running through these stories is the concept of a “valley of death”–the period in which the technology is still being matured while cash is dwindling. As is often lamented, too much time spent in this phase usually results in a failure to reach commercialization.

The risks attached to novel technologies are not lost on corporate leaders who are increasingly moving their organizations towards Innovation and Developmen (I&D) rather than Research and Development (R&D) for technology dependent business initiatives. The differentiator in these two approaches might be summed up as “research turns cash into an invention while innovation turns an invention into cash.” But does moving to an I&D approach really reduce strategy deployment risk?

Taking the innovation path is an obvious and logical response to deciding to take an idea to market, however a second and more challenging commercialization valley of death awaits those who undertake the journey1. Product development and commercialization, unlike research development, is far more dependent upon a broader pool of expertise to achieve success.

Many are the diagrams that depict product development as a simple sequence of pass-the-parcel steps from marketing (idea) through to manufacture (delivered good). This belies the fact that the commercialization process is as much about relationships and collaboration among individuals and groups (marketing, design, engineering, manufacturing, etc.), each of whom are driven by varied interests2. Understanding and managing this aspect of the journey cannot be underestimated.

Managing project stakeholders is crucial but it is also important to recognize that other external interests can also have an impact. A frequent example is the loss of resources to competing initiatives within the company. As a new project gets underway excitement builds and the possibilities are endless, soon enough however obstacles start to become apparent and project cadence can be lost. This is often the excuse others look for to divert hard-won resources to other activities. It is often for this reason alone that many companies engage outside product development firms to ensure that a reliable and focused team is maintained.

So, while building, maintaining and motivating the right team is the surest first step in bridging the gap, how else can you increase your chance of success? In our own development experience of working with hundreds of clients over the years, we’ve identified some common mistakes and subsequent themes when companies attempt to cross the valley.

  1. Prepare for the journey.A serious mistake that we often observe is that companies will often launch full development and commercialization efforts without having invested properly in completing the necessary pre-development work. It’s important to define the design inputs, prioritize features and functions and ensure feasibility of the technology, both from a price and performance standpoint. Pre-development work includes IP due diligence, landscape analysis, user research, technology identification/feasibility, risk and integration plans. Our experience is that when a project ignores these basic steps it usually fails to gain a mature understanding of what is possible. The result is concepts built upon a thin understanding of the physics and first principles, often leading the development team down a torturous path as they try to execute on ideas that can’t be turned into reality. These concepts may initially resonate in the executive board room but fail to deliver to the vision if not properly anchored in good pre-development work.
  2. Maintain cadence.Once you have done your preparation then get things underway, move consistently and continually towards your end goal. If you are stopping to rethink the business case or retest the consumer proposition then you run the risk of losing momentum. Doubts can creep in and with doubt comes scope change and invariably increases in cost and schedule. There are times when you should stop but this should be a planned response to the realization of risk (see below).
  3. Be realistic.Product development costs money. Such is the fidelity of modern CAD tools that the implausible soon appears to be the possible. Crowd funding sites add to the illusion by suggesting that the implausible can also be delivered for next to nothing. As a point of reference, the tooling costs alone typically range from the tens of thousands to the millions of dollars for low volume (less than 1 million units per year) consumer goods. Is it realistic to assume that the product development costs needed to arrive at the tooled design will be significantly less? Often, the better approach is to work backwards from the business case to allocate a budget rather than start from a preconceived idea of what the development should cost. Remember too that if you do engage outside parties, their profit is built into their fees whereas yours is attached to the end product. This can often lead to a disconnect in cost expectations when you use internal resources as a point of comparison.
  4. Be bold.Challenge the paradigm but obey the laws of physics. The engineers are right; just because you can draw it doesn’t mean you can make it. Nonetheless challenge the team, but don’t ignore them: There are some things that are still beyond current science. Steve Jobs is reported to have sent his team back to the drawing board during the iPod development after dropping the prototype into a fish tank. The presence of escaping air bubbles clearly meant there was still space to be removed and an opportunity to make it smaller3. If the team is struggling to rise to the contest then an alternative way to seed thinking is to look to other industries (and the work of other developers) for sources of inspiration.
  5. Understand risk… and reward.If you want to do something game-changing, then prepare for risk. Structuring your development program to fail often and fail early is critical to ultimate success. Align on key risks (technical, commercial, etc.) and plan for these as part of your pre-development work, making sure that investigating these risks is the first thing that the team undertakes. These investigations will allow you to gain a better understanding of the hazards ahead and the possibilities to mitigate these. Never carry risk forward to a later stage in the development—invariably this results in surprises and usually not of the happy type. With a proactive approach to risk management you will be better placed to negotiate obstacles and seize opportunities as they arise.
  6. Be flexible.Allowing for the possibility that the final product could be quite different to the original concept put forward by marketing/engineering can be quite liberating and can (and has) lead to some spectacular outcomes. It is often that little nugget of an idea that comes from the team that shifts the plan and transforms the business case. The opposite is also true: inflexibility blocks out opportunities for taking alternative routes with much time and effort wasted on a product that fails to launch. A typical example here is when a company spends significant amounts of time and money in market research and developing spectacular concepts to address their customers’ needs. This investment of time and money can lead to “new product development myopia” (or tunnel vision). Everyone determines that the concept will be a proven success, so blindly pursues its development to the point that the concept reaches a dead end. While it’s crucial to understand the value proposition to the market, it’s equally important to remain flexible early in design development so that the combination of the technology and user experience can evolve, resulting in a differentiated benefit.

Crossing the technology valley of death can be a career defining moment–one that can cut both ways. If you are going to put your reputation on the line then it is important to plan well and engage the right people to build a strong, flexible and knowledgeable team. The product development journey can be long and hazardous but, if well executed, will become the future touchstone of success for your company.


  1. “Bridging the Clean Energy Valleys of Death”. Jesse Jenkins and Sara Mansur. Breakthrough Institute November 2011
  2. “Bridging the valley of death: The rhetoric of technology transfer”. Karen Elizabeth Gulbrandsen Iowa State University, 2009
  3. “In Praise of Bad Steve”. David W Brown,com, OCT 6, 2011