Friday, December 21, 2012

Why don't Research Universities (typically) launch new products?

A number of our recent projects have prompted this question.  The answer relates to the difference between a new technology and new product. 

Technology represents new knowledge, while a product represents an application of that knowledge.  The concept of “rolling”, for example was technology, while the wheel represented an application (or a product) of that technology.   The distinction becomes a bit more complex in the modern world. Is the concept of a smart-phone new technology, or the application of technology into a product?  Really, it’s an application of several technologies into a product.

So why bother drawing a distinction between technologies and products at all? With regards to developing new products and technologies, the development approaches are quite different, and it’s important to separate the two.  A single technology can spawn several new products, but if your technology development and your product development efforts are too intertwined, it can be possible to miss some of the potential products that can be derived from the development work.

Again, technology development is about creating new knowledge.  This is often the wheelhouse of research universities or the research divisions of corporations.   Technology development is not often focused on a target market, a user experience, or the challenges of mass production.  Its focus is on the creation of some new phenomenon, regardless of whether that phenomenon has a practical application or not.  In fact, many discovered technologies don’t have practical applications (products) for years or perhaps even centuries after they are discovered. Gunpowder, for example, was a discovered technology for a long time before the first guns were ever built.  Another example is the Tesla coil; this is a fascinating technology, which has been around for a hundred years, but is still waiting for a mainstream practical application.

Product development, on the other hand, does necessarily focus on market needs.  It is product development which converts interesting technologies into mainstream elements of our world.  This is why research universities rarely launch products.  They create new knowledge.  They create technology.  And they are very good at it.  But, connecting that new knowledge with real world issues like market forces, go-to-market strategies, mass production needs, legal and regulatory issues, and many others is a very different challenge which can quickly derail a technology development effort.

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