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The moment of truth

The point at which people really get excited about an idea is when they can reach out and touch it, kick its tyres and take it for a spin. This is also a very exciting point for the innovator. Once you have created your prototype, there is every chance you may discover new markets and applications for you innovation as people get hold of it and interact with it in unexpected ways. If things go really well, this may also be your first opportunity to show something concrete to potential partners, investors and customers, to whet their appetites and pry open their wallets.

The point at which people really get excited about an idea is when they can reach out and touch it, kick its tyres and take it for a spin. This is also a very exciting point for the innovator. Once you have created your prototype, there is every chance you may discover new markets and applications for you innovation as people get hold of it and interact with it in unexpected ways. If things go really well, this may also be your first opportunity to show something concrete to potential partners, investors and customers, to whet their appetites and pry open their wallets.

But it can also be devastating. Your pride and glory, the idea you have lived, breathed and bet everything on for months, may come into being only to receive a perfunctory thumbs down from the punters. You then go back to the drawing board—if you can afford it.

You only have to spend the odd fun afternoon at motor shows to realise how much carefully-sculpted knobbly plastic ends up gathering dust on corporation shelves. Shaun Coffey, CEO of Industrial Research Limited, says this is an inevitable feature of the prototyping aspect of the ideation process.

“Often people think that having a prototype made is the end of the job, but in fact it is only about half the job,” he says. “The very nature of R&D means that scientists and engineers are pushing the boundaries of current knowledge. While an idea may look good on paper, it’s seldom possible to say with certainty that it will play out in practice as envisaged.”

If your product is software, the same applies but in a different format. Just because it works on your screen in the way you expect, it to doesn’t mean other people without your prior knowledge will get it to work in an effortless manner.

Some people will want to pull your idea to bits or drive your product to the extreme. They are your best friends and you should seek them out wherever possible. The obsessively pedantic or downright destructive may show up design flaws, strengths and tolerances that could otherwise get missed with expensive results.

Finding high-profile extreme testers can also be a marketing boon. If famous mountaineers use the prototype socks you designed, everyone else will know they’re toasty. Panasonic’s Toughbook is renowned for having stopped a bullet in Iraq, saving a soldier’s life. That’s an endorsement you just can’t buy.

Going to prototype is a key moment in the commercialising process when you may need to call on additional investment. It’s also an important time to check the small print of your IP protection, because you are embarking on a gigantic show-and-tell session.

IRL recently ran a competition called What’s Your Problem New Zealand? It promoted the benefits of research and development investment to Kiwi businesses and got more than 100 entries. IRL was surprised it revealed this blind spot. “Some entries showed little understanding of how to protect IP,” says Coffey, “which is a crucial element to consider.”

“You need to check,” says Simon Martin from Hudson Gavin Martin. “If the manufacturer innovates on the basis of your idea, who owns that innovation? You can lose control if you don’t look at their standard terms and conditions.”

You are testing the process as well as the product. The further down a full production run you go, the more you will learn but the more it will cost. It may be that several small false starts lead you to a bigger test.

Coffey says: “Technical hurdles vary across industries but one of the most common challenges is scaling up a technology from the experimental phase through to prototyping and then production. It is one thing to observe something in a lab, but a different proposition to translate it into a product that has value in the marketplace.”

“Scientists and engineers are pushing the boundaries of current knowledge. While an idea may look good on paper, it’s seldom possible to say that it will play out in practice”

—Shaun Coffey

Prototyping and testing can be thought of as an extension of market research: whether you get meaningful results depends on who you get using the product and what expectations you give them of it. Like market research, prototyping has to be a real test, not just an attempt to confirm what you already know.

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, summed this up by describing how a secure part of a fictional spaceship had been “battered, rammed, blasted and subjected to every assault its builders knew it could withstand in order to demonstrate that it could withstand them”. It was discovered leaking tremendously dangerous materials at the bottom of the ocean.

If you want your idea to go beyond the prototype, protect it— but don’t wrap it in cotton wool.