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What if "technology push" really worked?

It is an article of faith among many new business development professionals that pursuing growth via applications for novel technology, sometimes referred to as “technology push”, is a bad idea. Conventional wisdom is (and most practitioners would agree) that market- or customer-driven approaches to seeking growth are much more effective. In fact, in recent years, entire companies have been re-oriented around market platforms for this very reason. And our consulting experience confirms that using customers or markets as a focal point is, indeed, far more likely to produce valuable results than trying to find, or make, a market for a new technology.

Every innovation practitioner has stories of exciting new technologies that couldn’t find a market; novel new materials that couldn’t displace competitors or the enormous amount of money spent on solutions seeking problems to solve. In corporate boardrooms, “technology push” is seen as a company-destroying strategy that has wasted billions of R&D dollars creating products no one wanted.

But what keeps many scientists, and quite a few CTOs and Research Directors, coming to the lab every morning is the knowledge that technology push does indeed sometimes work, and sometimes works in a big way. In fact, many of the most important innovations of the last hundred years were made with customers and markets just barely in mind: lasers, LCDs, and microwaves, for example. In each case, the invention preceded commercialization by decades, which is one of the reasons executives are wary of it. But in retrospect, without the laser, for example, the internet as we know it wouldn’t exist. Without the LCD, we would still be watching TV on hundred-pound glass cathode-ray tubes, and without the microwave, we’d all be thawing our ground beef in the sink.

Fundamentally, there are two critical factors that make technology push undesirable to innovation leaders and investors: 1) Hit rate is low and 2) New applications take a long time to emerge. Let’s look at those in turn:

  1. Hit rate. The fact is, it’s a big world. A new technology, no matter how flexible and promising, may only be adapted to a limited number of circumstances. The world, on the other hand, has an infinite range of possibilities, variations, applications, customers, markets, issues, competitors, etc. So, there’s a huge mismatch between the range of possibilities for the technology and the range of problems it might address. Focusing on customers or markets massively reduces that mismatch, which is one key reason market-driven approaches work better. And by further narrowing focus to large and attractive market segments, innovators can scale inventions, driving down their cost and making them more competitive. So, today, as the writer Daymon Runyan put it, “the race may not always go to the swift or the battle to the strong, but that’s sure the way to bet.”
  1. Timing. Beyond their potential mismatch with the market, new inventions generally require a whole host of complementary technologies to succeed. For example, the myriad of lasers that power the internet today would be useless without the low-attenuation optical fiber which communicates their signal, or the chips which make semi-conductor lasers possible. Neither of those associated technologies existed when the first laser was conceived. It took more than 50 years for the complementary technologies to coalesce around the optical telecommunications system that we take for granted today. So, one can imagine the challenge of developing a commercialization strategy for a ruby rod coated with silver and powered by a flash lamp. In fact, when the laser was first invented, it was widely derided as “a solution seeking a problem.”  

Despite these challenges, the reality is that many of society’s genuinely groundbreaking inventions have come from imaginative scientists engaged in cutting-edge, fundamental research and will continue to originate there, whether in corporate R&D, or government and academic research. In fact, if we truly want to solve the biggest and most important challenges in our world, we need more ways to encourage and support this type of research. And one crucial way is better connecting these nascent technologies to real market needs, so they prove themselves more quickly, and have a better chance of succeeding, while simultaneously giving technology executives and investors more confidence in the value of these early-stage technologies.

At Aperture, we have developed data analytics and software, along with a systematic process to make this not just possible, but practical. Almost instantaneously, we’re able to analyze an existing technology or suite of technologies and look broadly across the world of tens-of-thousands of potential applications to find the specific, underlying challenges the technology might address – problems that are both relevant to its strengths, and those that are critical to enabling valuable new markets and trends.

Historically, this type of approach has been extremely difficult and time-consuming, so it’s no wonder that organizations have struggled with it. Researchers often direct their development and commercialization efforts toward the areas they know well, potentially missing much better opportunities in lesser-known markets. However, with modern analytical tools and insight, Aperture can provide these innovators with a much broader view of the world, and an ability to spot new opportunities in a matter of minutes, not months.

Given this shift in capability, it may be feasible to consider technology push as a legitimate innovation strategy, rather than a discredited alternative to market-driven approaches. If that is the case, what could that mean for the world of innovation? What would it mean if we could take a company’s entire portfolio of intellectual property and rapidly screen it for undervalued connections to the world? What if we could assess the attractiveness of a company as an acquisition candidate (or an equity investment) based on the value and synergy of its technology? What if university licensing officers could instantly identify potential users of proprietary technology?

If we could actually make technology push work, it would be a really big deal.

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