Into the Valley of Death

Into the Valley of Death

If the Clifton Suspension Bridge or Millau Viaduct prove anything it’s that if you want to get over a valley, engineers play a pivotal (if not an essential) part. So it should come as no surprise that finding and procuring the right skills and services from engineers, companies, analysts, modellers and draughtsmen should play an equally pivotal role in helping entrepreneurs and innovative ventures seeking to overcome the “Technological Valley of Death”. It’s one of the most, if not the most significant barriers to companies aiming to develop and commercially deploy inventive or disruptive ‘real-world’ technologies.

The Technological Valley is one of two virtual chasms that (too commonly) prevent many innovative prototypes ever reaching  the marketplace. That is, the valley represents the development (and often associated capital) required to take a product from a period of applied research to ‘technology demonstration’. That is, a commercially viable product, with an important focus on demonstrating the product’s basic market viability. A similar ‘valley’ also exists at the ‘commercialisation’ stage… though engineers play less of key role here.

Given the nature of this blog, let’s consider a ‘real-world’ engineering product. An innovative small engine component say, that is likely to improve efficiency by a large percentage. Very simply, the technological valley, and its ‘commercialisation’ cousin, exist because of the unavoidable (and relatively high) levels of investment required to move from one stage of a product’s development to the next. In this case, from the lab to the manufacturing line.

The chances of our entrepreneur obtaining the necessary funding to achieve this transition is often severely hampered by the perceived risk of investing in such technologies. That is, there can be high technical, marketing, and management execution related risks with an unproven technological concept, regardless of how sound the science is. Furthermore, when considered in conjunction with the likely long development times, finding the right investor becomes even more difficult.

In the UK at least, government grants and ‘matched-funding’ go some way to helping the situation. However, no matter where the funding comes from, a need exists for any available money to go a long way. Afterall, there’s little value in a half finished prototype or something that doesn’t then allow our CMO to effectively sell the new engine part (or more likely to  raise further funding). So the team needs a lot of “bang for their buck”.

Build a great prototype

Build a great prototype

At this early stage, innovators and entrepreneurs go through a process of developing, testing, and refining their technologies in order to prove that the technology will be viable in markets beyond an initial success in the laboratory. This requires access to engineers, software, specialists and equipment. Trying to source this input locally is challenging and likely to be expensive.  Within the UK particularly, engineers are in demand, software licences are expensive and testing/manufacturing facilities are limited.

Schemes such as the ‘Catapult’ centres and working with UK universities can of course provide a lot of what our start-up would need to realise their engine prototype. Sites such as EngLancer though can also help fill the gaps. Finding the specialist you need to design that last aspect of the component, run that key bit of analysis, or to sit down and produce the drawings you need to send to the tool maker can therefore make all the difference between realising the prototype (and the funding you desperately need).

Sites such as EngLancer provide a global resource, so finding that specialist with the right skills and availability (within the budget) becomes more achievable. Real world engineering is seen as having a serious time-lag when it comes to product realisation, particularly when compared to software or web development industries. Having the ability to quickly scale your design and manufacturing team though will go a long way in allowing ‘real-world’ engineering companies to more realistically compete for the early stage funding that software engineers appear to obtain so easily.

The other common reason cited for the failure of a ‘real-world’ engineering  product to cross the valley of death is that unlike software or pharmaceutical products, which will often compete on new features or value-added, a new type of engine component will often be required to compete on cost alone.This is because our markets are highly competitive and commoditised. If this is the case then we (as engineers) need to work differently. To be able to test ideas and develop products cheaply so we can ‘fail quickly’ and pivot if necessary. We need to adopt different design and project delivery mechanisms that will enable innovative engineering companies to embrace the principles of ‘lean startup’ methodology.

We may have left it a bit late to influence your new year’s resolution, but there’s never a better time than now to pursue a good idea or implement good practices. If you’re an engineer, inventor or entrepreneur with a great idea, make this the year that you build that prototype. If you need to get over a valley you’ll need an Engineer, and at EngLancer we know where to find them.

Images supplied under a creative commons licence by Owen Byrne and Les Chatfield

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