June - 2008 - issue > Innovation
Ash Tankha
Monday, June 2, 2008
In the early stages, entrepreneurs most often chase a rather promising and hypothetical problem. Over time, they develop a solution in a very dynamic, and in some ways a difficult and unpredictable market. The customer’s requirement may change, the price points may vary, the very problem definition may transform, the level of investment required may increase, the market inclinations may vary, or the product may be too early for the market. When almost everything changes, the only constancy is the entrepreneur! No wonder, venture capitalists unanimously agree that their investment decisions are based on the confidence they have in the ability of the founders, rather than purely investing based on the promise of the underlying technology of the products.

On interviewing a dozen startups on their product story, we discovered that in most cases the starting problem definition and the finished product solution are miles apart. We observed the same pattern in the evolution of the patent portfolio of companies. At the start, a few broad and core patents are filed. Patents with very specific applications are filed only after the passage of one or more years as new applications of the product are discovered. In many cases, the patents turn out to be applying to entirely different industries or applications over time.

“Effective idea generation is developed in conjunction with the customer and the targeted market – the need for closing the gap on how a customer can bring a differentiating product which the market appreciates is important in delivering a revolutionary product idea”, says Ramesh Singh, President-CEO, Nethra Imaging.

On the periphery, product development may appear as systematically constructing a working solution to a defined problem. However, product development often involves sailing on to unknown technical waters in search of previously unavailable parameters of performance, cost, and reliability. In other words, a massive amount of inventing and innovating will be involved in any serious product development. Further, product development is closely knit to factors such as the dynamics of the market, the business viability of the product, the right time to position the product in the market, competition, etc. With a number of factors influencing the development of any product, companies need to track ’parameters and pointers’ that indicate the state of the development of a product, similar to the way in which companies routinely track financial numbers to follow the overall progress of the company. As much as idea generation is required, it is more important to have the development cycle of a product aligned with the market needs and the availability of resources. Sujai Karampuri, founder of Sloka Telecom, says, “Idea generation is not only about product definition, but it is also about ideas on how to execute that project, how to inspire and bring the team together to work on a common goal. Product development is the ability to build the product at a price that the customer is willing to pay to enjoy that product, within a finite period to reach the market in time, using finite resources that are allocated. It requires a discipline that comes from age, experience, and wisdom.”

In the early stages of product development, the progress is on the rising edge of the development curve owing to the fact that the initial development challenges are more general and technical in nature. As the product gets refined and comes closer to becoming a marketable commodity, the challenges become more specific and dependent on the market factors. According to Vivek Khuller, CEO, DiVitas Networks,”In markets such as ours where we are constantly operating in uncharted territory, this is critical. To find the best solution to a customer or technical problem, we have to look at it from all angles. This requires ideas and contributions from individuals across the company as well as effective engagement with customers and partners to make sure that we really understand the problem, the importance of it being solved, and determine the most resource-efficient way to address issues.

Most product companies generate a healthy backlog of ideas in their idea bank; but a system for evaluating the business prospects of these ideas and moving forward with the best ones may not exist. The objective should be to thoroughly assess the business case for each new product idea and weigh it against other investment opportunities. Rajeev Gupta, VP-Engineering, Kineto Wireless, indicates, “It is a relatively long road from the inception of an idea to the delivery of the finished product. Often, ideas are generated in larger volumes and drafted into paper presentations. Therefore, it is critical that the company be able to filter the ideas and select the most promising ones for further development. Significant time and capital needs to be invested to develop the idea into a product, so the idea selection and the product development methodology have to be very prudent and efficient”.

With a significant amount of time and money involved in the development of a product, it becomes imperative to prudentially define a problem and promote innovation at every stage of the product development cycle, It is important to assess the market for a product at the very early stages of development in order to prevent cost overruns and have a ’well-performing’ product. Apart from a market need, the creation of any product is determined by the overall mission and business goals of a company. A diligent entrepreneur is quick to recognize that innovation is key to the success of a company. As Ione Binford, CEO, ReadInk, says, “Without innovation we don’t have a product, a competitive edge. Without development we don’t have a product. Without a product, we don’t have anything”.

The author is US Patent Attorney, Gosakan A and Roopam Ghosh patent service providers.

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