Careful planning and tenacity take a new product from the idea stage to successful commercialization.
By Barb Ernster
From grassroots efforts to sophisticated business processes, companies are finding the means to bring new technologies and products from the lab to the marketplace. Those that are successful in commercializing their ideas have done their homework well, identifying the market opportunities and how their product fits in. This is the crucial first step, no matter how small your company or how large your idea.
Despite the temptation to pursue every viable market, Debra Aperfine, president of Chameleon Intl. in Oak Ridge, N.C., credits a steady focus on key industries—technical textiles and medical applications—for the company’s success with ChroMyx™, a line of temperature-sensitive, color-changing, flexible sheet material introduced in 2008.
“Once we had a working prototype, then we could truly see the magnitude of commercial applications. We had to stay focused because we didn’t want to overextend ourselves. We targeted those industries that could give us sustainability, so it wouldn’t be just a phase,” says Aperfine.
Timing the product launch was one of the most important things they did right, adds Aperfine. Rather than rush out and introduce it, the company spent an additional two years in R & D after the first successful production run to really understand how their technology would function in the marketplace. “When we introduced it, we had our act together and understood the limitations and specific regulations it would pass,” she says. “It helped us be more successful today and shortened the time to bring new products to market because we know what criteria they meet.”
The company is just now looking at some earlier product ideas that were on their “to-do” list, and are planning new launches in the fall.
Start slow and grow
Ben Favret of Vestagen Technical Textiles LLC in Orlando, Fla., agrees that you have to find the niche market opportunities that are emerging or growing and go for the “wins” that are easy to implement and will offer a good return. The more success you have, the more projects you can do. The company has adopted a process that answers 17 questions about the product and market, and follows a model called translational research that is a way of conducting scientific research to make the results of the research applicable in the real world.
“You start with the problem you’re trying to solve as opposed to the product you’re trying to develop,” says Favret. “What’s in it for the customer? There are two parts to that question: the logic part or technology and the emotional part, which is how most people make their buying decisions.”
Vestagen was successful in launching its antimicrobial, fluid-barrier technology to the medical market by focusing on an emerging healthcare issue—protecting workers from infectious contaminants. Research concluded that the fluid barrier property resonated more with the consumer than the antimicrobial property, because it offered personal protection from splatters and spills that occur frequently during patient care. “It was a huge change in how we marketed,” says Favret. “We adjusted our go-to-market strategy based on what we learned.”
Through clinical and operational research, Vestagen learned that some technologies did not fit conditions encountered during patient care; they perform great in the lab but don’t have what it takes to be commercially successful. “You have to have a true understanding of the customer’s problem and the benefit of the solution,” Favret says. “Then you have a product that fits the market need and consumer need, as opposed to a technology looking for a niche.”
The partnership approach
Through partnerships with universities and companies, as well as independent pursuits, surface treatment specialists, Enercon Industries Corp. in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is launching new technologies that are marketed to industrial candidates, who then incorporate these technologies into their processes to commercialize their products. The success in bringing these products to market is rooted significantly in customizing development for a specific market niche, says Rory Wolf, vice president. If you generalize too much, you might not hit the mark.
Among their partnership successes is one that filled a need in the fabrics marketplace for manufacturers that handle wide-width materials. According to Wolf, their atmospheric plasma technology cleans and functionalizes the surfaces of material to allow for better dye uptake and adhesions. This helps to increase productivity and drive down costs for roll-to-roll materials for dying purposes or to improve surface properties.
“There are prerequisites to making sure that what you’re bringing to market is going to be viable and there are a number of critical steps, but if you boil it down, the first step is to validate the market need itself. You don’t want to get too many financial commitments tied up into something that is not ready,” Wolf says. “Normally anything we do in development is influenced by our network of reps that we have worldwide. I write technology papers and go to symposiums to present the technology and hear through those venues what the market needs. It becomes part of our project and product development.”
Enercon uses Stage-Gate® techniques, a product innovation process, throughout its product development. Using that model, the second phase of the process is to build a business case for the need and start development. The third phase is testing the product and validating it before launch, and the fourth phase is making sure you launch appropriately.
“How you weight each of those critical steps is different. We put a lot on the development side, making sure it’s right the first time,” says Wolf. “Others may spend more time on the screening side before product development, and may launch several successive versions, like what you see with software versions.”
Small business, big potential
The founders of Shadyssun and UV protection golf car covers used a grassroots approach to successfully launch its product earlier this year, starting with an idea on paper and a simple prototype developed with materials from Home Depot. IFAI Expo Americas connected them with manufacturers who helped them create a refined prototype, and provided advice on the best materials to use and information about printing for their custom-printed shades. With the refined prototype, they found the right manufacturer and printer in the southern California area to develop the product.
They also began seeking feedback from various groups in the golf industry. “We found out there wasn’t a whole lot of competition and we had to decide who we wanted to be in that market—a premium product or a ‘me-too’ product, competing on price or quality,” says Shadys co-owner, Jaime Parker. “The golfer or golf car owner is a higher end market; they expect a lot of value out of the products they purchase. We decided to be a premium product, so we looked for the best materials out there. Once we made that decision, it was a whole lot easier to move forward.”
Shadys gained some visibility offering the product as a prize item at golf tournaments in southern California where the company is located. But it needed broader exposure, so the founders began seeking a partnership with Club Car, the largest manufacturer and distributor of golf cars. Persistence paid off when they landed an exclusive deal with the company earlier this year. They officially launched to the consumer market in January, timing it just before the golf season. Club Car gives them credibility while they continue to grow their market, which has expanded internationally. Their goal is to have their product available as a standard option with a golf car purchase.
Grass roots deals
As a one-person company, Tim Kramer, founder of Nautical Designs LLC in Blue Springs, Mo., has had some admirable success with his custom-designed, boat-covering system called Nautical Guard®, a cover on a drapery-like track system that hangs independent of the boat and keeps it enclosed while it is docked. A former designer of commercial packaging and point-of-purchase displays, Kramer was convinced that if he could design a product that was good and could sell itself, everything would fall into place. But just the opposite happened.
“It’s easier to build a drug store next to a drug store than a store that no one has ever heard of before,” he says. Trying to build a company alone, while working part time jobs, made it tough to invest in trade shows and similar opportunities. “I don’t sell Sea Rays, so it’s difficult to get my product in front of customers,” Kramer says.
Despite the slumping boating and retail industry, Kramer sees a lot of potential for innovative new products that solve problems for boaters. Armed with a good business plan that was developed with the help of a local university and funding from a friend to develop a working prototype, he started by offering the boat cover system to certain companies and boat owners at a reduced price in exchange for some visibility. “I’ll give it to a customer for wholesale cost because I know he’ll have four or five people ask where he got it,” says Kramer.
One of his best marketplaces has been Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri where 25,000 boats are docked. He stays focused on a niche market of people with larger boats, pontoons and yachts, valued at $75,000 or more, who want to protect their investment and are still spending money on new widgets. He’s now seeking licensing agreements with boat manufacturers that could offer a branded cover as an add-on sale with a boat.
Besides word-of-mouth, he has also gained visibility at consumer boat shows. By staying focused on getting in front of his customer base, he is making sales and slowly building a network of dealers.
What’s important to any company that is investing its time, money and effort into a successful piece of the marketplace is a persevering attitude. Shady’s founders discovered that when they put everything they had into the company and the dream, there was no turning back. “By putting all your chips in, you’re committed,” Parker says “That’s been huge for us.”