The Management Perspective: Leveraging and Augmenting the PI’s Research
The bench researcher or principal investigator (PI) who conducts the type of research described in this article is providing valuable information. Use these findings to help determine the potential for the proposed R&D to answer three important questions:
- Technology: Will investing in this R&D provide something substantially better than what is currently available?
- Intellectual Property (IP): Do we have the IP space to protect our investment?
- Market: Will the market have interest in and be big enough to warrant our investment?
The PI’s patent research likely provides a useful head start. Augment this information by conducting additional Internet research into the market, following the same techniques outlined in this article.
The market-focused questions to be answered include the following:
- Market size (in revenue and in units): Is this a $10 million market or a $10 billion market? Be sure to calculate this based not on the whole market but instead on where the product/technology falls in the value chain.
- Market structure: How many players are in the market? Who are the top players and what is their market share distribution? Does the company already have/want relationships with any of them?
- Market growth and maturity: Is the market for this product/technology growing? Or is it a stable market with no significant growth? Or is it declining? Is the growth slow or fast? What is its compound annual growth rate (CAGR)?
- Market dynamics: Are the customers in the market early adopters or very conservative when it comes to new products/technology? Are any certifications or capabilities required to adopt/implement the proposed R&D’s outcomes?
- Emerging trends: Have any events made this a “hot” area? For example, many of the recent natural disasters worldwide have increased the need for technologies for communication, tracking and portable shelters.
As with researchers, document the research findings. All of the information helps with determining the commercial potential for the product/technology. And if a market does exist, it helps in understanding what is important to the market.
Forthcoming articles in this series will discuss how to feed this information into positioning the product/technology to stakeholders, investors and customers as well as who to target when pursuing collaboration or commercialization.
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on how bench researchers can gather and use market research-type data to inform their proposed R&D projects.
The old adage about not reinventing the wheel may be a cliché, but it is still good advice. Looking at what already exists reveals important information at the start of an R&D effort:
- The new product will have to be different from what is already on the market, helping determine the targets and specifications that need to be hit. (We have to be X times better, faster or cheaper.)
- A technical challenge might have already been solved, providing a head start on the R&D effort. (We haven’t done it here, but that doesn’t mean no one has done it.)
The latter situation—that is, when a solution to another problem can be applied to a new R&D project, in part or in whole—can have significant advantages. The effort needed to modify existing technology to meet the new need is often lower than starting from square one. Leveraging existing technology is even more important when the company has a gap in expertise.
For example, a medical device company was creating an innovative dry-powder inhaler (DPI) that would have its own energy source to vibrate the powder and distribute it evenly into the user’s lungs. This company understood powder flow physics and the DPI’s need for air-flow sensors and active feedback control, but it lacked knowledge about the technology that would provide the vibration.
By collaborating with a piezoelectric materials company, the medical device company was able to successfully develop a cost-effective inhaler that dispensed powdered medication accurately and reproducibly.
As this example demonstrates, the make-buy question is not a binary decision but rather a spectrum. Any idea or project virtually always has some aspect of “make,” since an existing solution is rarely a clear-cut, off-the-shelf “buy” for a different problem. The questions are:
- How much of the project needs to start from scratch vs. leverage outside solutions?
- How much needs to be done solely in house vs. collaborating with someone else who is working on a similar problem in a noncompeting space?
To help answer these questions, this article provides techniques for identifying who is working on the technologies that are relevant to a new R&D effort. This is a fairly straightforward task that is best conducted by both the bench researcher and the project manager, since they have different perspectives. (See sidebar for more about the management angle.)
The Golden Rule: Always Document What You Find
In conducting the research described here, always document the sources for and a summary of the findings. There are several reasons to do so. For one, this information can help with technology development, providing details as to what features the new innovation will need to have. The information will also be helpful for the patenting process.
Even more important: Bench researchers will be able to draw upon the information when justifying the R&D project to management. Being able cite market evidence regarding how the proposed innovation is different from what is already out there will bolster the strength of the proposal.
Capture the key information—and the sources where it was found—and do this now so that the searching steps (outlined below) do not need to be repeated.
Where to Look: Patent Databases
Fee-based patent databases, such as PatSnap and Innography, offer user interfaces that are better than with searches through Google Patents, Delphion or Espacenet. So, find out whether the company has access to such a service.
If a paid patent database is not available, several free options are available. In addition to Google Patents, FreePatentsOnline.com is an excellent resource. It is fairly easy to use and the site offers a search tutorial, syntax examples, an overview of field abbreviations, and much more.
Another source is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) site, which provides simple and advanced searches. The site has help on conducting advanced searches as well as guidance for searching within specific fields of a patent.
What to Look For: Technologies and Researchers
In researching relevant technologies that could be applied to a proposed R&D project, examine the state-of-the-art both from a technical perspective and as a search for potential collaborators.
The Technical Landscape
One of the first questions to consider is: Does a solution already exist? Remember that an existing solution is unlikely to be a perfect match but still may be relevant.
How does the proposed technology compare to what is already available? How big of an improvement will it offer? Keep in mind that incremental improvements might make it difficult to convince users to switch.
Another aspect to explore is how many innovations are there in this area. A large pool of patents indicates a lot of interest. Look at the dates to see if the problem has already been solved (i.e., few new applications, most patents issued years ago) or if the problem is still being explored (i.e., most patents are new applications). If there are only a few patents, this suggests there may be space for new innovations; however, old activity may indicate there is no interest in the solution.
Also look at how focused the innovations are in this area. If they are broad, there may be little room for new patents; but if they are narrow, a new use may be an opportunity for new patents.
In looking at who is innovating in this space, determine the overall number of players. They may be companies, universities, government labs or contract research organizations (CROs).
Some industries are dominated by a handful of players, which limits the options for partners. In others, there are many small players, providing a wide range of possibilities to be considered later. Regardless, document the names of specific researchers (the inventors) and their employers (the assignees) whose work seems relevant to the proposed R&D project.
How to Look: Keywords
Selecting the keywords to use in this type of research is more an art than a science. It’s easy to become inundated by the enormous wealth of available information, not all of which is relevant. Therefore, the best approach is to start with narrow terms.
If the initial results do not provide the right information, then try going a bit broader. For example, if the R&D project is to develop a new lithium-ion battery technology, then use “lithium ion” as one of the early search strings and then expand to “battery” if necessary.
Other best practices for searching patent databases include the following:
- Use synonyms and roots of words, leaving off the plural or other suffixes.
- Vary the word order. Sometimes slight differences in the terms can yield big differences in the results.
- Watch for industry vernacular and adjust search terms accordingly.
In addition to searching for patents, search the Internet using the same search strings to identify products or research papers that are relevant. Remember: Not everything gets patented or a patent may not have published yet.
One last piece of advice: If you get stuck in your searching, take a break. Or discuss it with a colleague. Often coming back fresh or having another person’s perspective can do wonders.
Do not forget to document the results of this research. The information (a) helps communicate the value of the proposed R&D project to management and (b) jump-starts the effort of finding a collaborative partner if and when the time comes. (Note: The next two articles in this series will provide guidance for these follow-on efforts, respectively.)
Remember: There is more than one path to achieving a company’s goals.
When R&D teams perform this due diligence before beginning a project, they help the company mitigate the risk of going down the wrong path or one that is slower than necessary.
For More Information: A Free Webinar
In collaboration with PatSnap, the author presented a free webinar on best practices for analyzing whether a technology aligns with market needs. The webinar discussed:
- Conducting effective market and patent research
- Using objective criteria to determine a technology’s market fit
- Articulating the technology’s benefits, applications and value proposition
- An example illustrating the value of this approach
The “Finding the Fit Within the Market and Patent Landscape” webinar can be viewed free at http://bit.ly/FuentekPatSnapFindingTheFit
About the Author
Laura A. Schoppe, MBA, MSE, is president of Fuentek, LLC, a consulting firm that provides intellectual property (IP) management and technology transfer services. She recently presented on a panel at the 2018 R&D 100 Conference in Orlando in a Special Session: Tech Scout Relay Panel during the R&D Technology Transfer Strategies track.
Laura has an extensive background in all aspects of IP management. She has been a lead negotiator for major licensing agreements, strategic relationships and collaboration agreements at top universities, government agencies and Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her expertise includes building efficient and effective technology management organizations; intellectual property (IP) portfolio management; open innovation; technology marketing and strategic communications; negotiating licenses, collaborative R&D partnerships, sponsored research agreements (SRAs) and other deals; and entrepreneurship training for innovators/researchers.
Prior to founding Fuentek in 2001, Laura worked as an engineer and manager for several defense contractors, leading multi-million-dollar projects. She earned her MBA at UNC-Chapel Hill; her MSE in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University; and her BSE in mechanical engineering at Carnegie-Mellon University. She currently serves on the board of the Association of University Technology Managers Foundation.