Don’t get stuck in your own mouse trap

By carsten boers

Hard tech innovation is famously slow to get to market. A 2004 MIT study found that the average time from lab to product is 15 years for a material science innovation. For founders and investors that’s a daunting if not impossible timeline. Why is it so long and how can you speed things up (dramatically)?

Hard tech innovation seldom involves a completely new “better mouse trap”. Usually it is more like a new wire that makes mouse traps better. When a startup tries to produce the whole mouse trap all by itself, things take a long time. (Here’s the story of a guy who spent 6 months making every part of a sandwich, from scratch, by himself: When you can find mouse trap industry partners to integrate your innovation, things can go quicker. But founders are nervous about working with large industry players. Here are some concerns we often hear right off the bat:

  • They might steal my IP (often IP is not yet fully secured and application level patents are still emerging).
  • They are too big and slow for us to work with productively.
  • They are too rigid and bureaucratic.
  • Their lawyers are trying to screw us.
  • They have their own competing solution.

These concerns have a kernel of validity, but they can be overcome with initiative, tenacity and creativity – the necessity for the latter being particularly often overlooked.

Large industry players can look like sleepy giants, but alongside their steady business lines they are keenly interested in innovation. Senior leaders are focused on spotting what could be profits or disruptive threats in the future. Engaging these thought leaders with the right language can open up opportunities.

Even if you put on your big-boy pants and approach large industry players, you will run into many standard barriers:

  • This is our standard requirement/ protocol/ process/ contract… and we cannot modify it.
  • Send us some samples that meet the following requirements, and then we talk more.
  • We don’t have budgets for this kind of work.
  • We’re not interested in this area.

Sadly, inexperienced founders often take these responses at face value and stop. They turn back to their comfort zone, hoping that if they advance their technology “just a bit more” the customer will recognize the opportunity. And as the years go by, they try to create the whole mouse trap. That doesn’t just take time, but also requires continuous funding to build entirely new capabilities from scratch; founders own very little of their own startup when all is said and done. Worse, by the time the original innovation is finally integrated and a product is out, the market has often moved on. 

There is an alternative: a business development professional ignores the superficial friction; you get your foot in the door and wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, until you’ve squeezed your butt in – and then you’re practically through the door. Tactics for wiggling like that merit another post. For now, remember: there is a creative way to get an industry partner to work with you, and you’ve got to find it. You simply cannot afford the time or money required to build the entire mouse trap yourself.

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