Technology writers often hear complaints from readers that go something like: “All you ever talk about is this technology 'would,' 'could,' or 'might'.” Fair enough. But when the field is an emerging one, such as nanotechnology, most of the good stories are about just that—a development in the lab, or just coming out of it, that may or may not have an impact in the years to come.
Let's face it. A tech blog isn't the Daily Racing Form, and even in horseracing, good breeding is no guarantee of crossing the finish line first. First comes the struggle to secure funding, and then come any number of opportunities for management to make some tragic blunder or to fail to dislodge the incumbent competition, which often successfully blocks the technology from ever coming to market. The bottom line is that not only is success in the marketplace the exception and not the rule, but discerning the few winners from the many losers at a technology's earliest stages can make picking the ponies feel like child's play.
Then there's the frustration of time. Going to the racetrack offers immediate gratification, but handicapping high-tech requires quite a bit of patience. I have been writing about emerging technologies for over 15 years. In that time, I've chronicled some successes and failures and a common rule of thumb I picked up early on was that it typically takes seven years to bring a laboratory technology to market.
The seven-year rule is something of a shibboleth. Try as I might, I have not been able to determine where that notion originates, but I thought I should at least try to see how accurate it is as a barometer as to whether a new technology can make a commercial impact.
Thus this post starts a new series within The Nanoclast that looks back on some of the technologies that we have covered with words like “would”, “could” or “might.” How far along have On-Off Super Glue or Junctionless Transistors, to name just two of my favorites, progressed?
We're calling the series “Seven or Never,” a reference to the seven-year time-to-market timescale shibboleth. But first, I thought I might see if that timeline really holds true by asking a couple of tech jockeys who have put in their time riding fast horses down a seven-furlong track.
The first is Adrian Burden, who, while a researcher at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore, discovered a method for using nanomagnets as an anti-counterfeiting measure, especially for pharmaceuticals. In 2005, he launched a company called Singular ID based on that technology that was later acquired by Bilcare Research. He is currently Technical Director of Key IQ, a business and technology catalyst based in the UK.
Like me, Burden was mystified by the origin of the “seven-year” idea, but he saw that there were some pretty common sense reasons for why it might have come into being.
“Certainly it usually takes much longer than you originally anticipate to bring a technology to market,” says Burden. “When people put together business plans or roadmaps, it is very difficult to see beyond three to five years, so seven years takes you nicely over the horizon.”
Still, he thinks that seven years is a pretty tight timeline.
“I personally don't think that the seven-year rule holds,” says Burden. “I think it is much more instructive to say it will be much longer than you anticipate. There is a wide variety of technological developments that can be brought to market and their complexity will really govern the timelines, along with a good dose of luck or timeliness.
I also spoke to Peter Dobson. He's the director of the University of Oxford's Begbroke Science Park, which has not only spun out companies from laboratory research that went on to become multi-million-dollar operations, but also now guides others on how to do it. His insights into rapidly transferring laboratory technologies to the marketplace are sought after around the world.
Dobson similarly doubts that even seven years is enough time to bring a new technology to market. “I think it is longer," he says. "And if anyone gets it below seven for a tangible product as opposed to an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) product, they are either lucky or very well organized.”
While Dobson acknowledges too that there are many complexities to launching a new technology commercially, he thinks there are different approaches that can shorten the time frame—at the cost of some tradeoffs. “One has to take account of the times taken to build production facilities, form partnerships for manufacture or sales, progress through regulations, and so on,” he says. “If partnering is adopted it is possible to get the period down to less than seven years.” However, Dobson notes that when you start dividing up company, you won't reap the full fortunes of the company--if there are any.
I asked Burden about the timeline itself—where do we begin the countdown? Do we start at the first paper published, first patent filed, or first series of funding?
“I think you have to start the clock when you consider the discovery or technological development to be of commercial significance,” he says. “So, the very basic blue-sky ground work can be discounted. As such, publishing a paper may not be the starting point, but certainly an internal invention disclosure, internal project proposal describing commercial applications or a patent drafting would be a useful marker.”
Then too, some fields have timelines that are inherently lengthy.
”Medical developments that require animal testing, clinical trials and approvals could take much longer than seven years to come to market,” says Burden. “Aviation or automotive components that require testing and approval, as well as being incorporated into designs that may be on the drawing board many years in advance also could take longer to be adopted. And almost all manufactured products needs to obtain approvals for sale in specific markets—CE Marking being an example. These can be costly and time consuming to obtain, and moreover restrict improvements in design that may help accelerate adoption by the market.”
There are two parts to “Seven or Never,”—the second being that if a technology hasn’t made a commercial impact within that time, we aren’t likely to ever see on the market. To this, Burden adamantly disagrees.
“I think there is always an opportunity for prototypes or concepts to lie dormant and then re-emerge when the time is right,” says Burden. “This is sometimes because other enabling technologies come along or become mainstream - for example RFID-enabled phones will lead to a proliferation of near-field communication (NFC) products and services that have otherwise languished until now.”
So how do we rejuvenate languishing technologies, and keep others from languishing in the first place? According to Dobson, some “robust tweaking” is in order, and he cited some examples in the U.K, like the Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTN) set up by the Technology Strategy Board in the UK. Organizations like the KTN, and others such as the new Catapult Centres and High Value Manufacturing Centres, Dobson believes have the right mix for promoting innovation that includes close cooperation between government, industry and research centers. Dobson also believes that there needs to be an increased emphasis at universities on the concept of innovation and skills in entrepreneurship with courses to support that emphasis. "All of these can improve the situation," Dobson notes.
One approach that has been growing increasingly popular over the last decade is innovation parks—miniature Silicon Valleys devoted to a specific emerging technology. (Nanotechnology seems to be a favorite, attracting the attention of both New York and the U.K.) To be sure, there are no guarantees they will produce the economic impact some regions are counting on. But Burden, who came out of Singapore’s model of a tightly grouped collection of research institutes, believes it may be the best plan right now for shortening what's often more like a 10 to 15 year timescale for bringing an emerging technology to market.
“Although I don't believe you can force the next Silicon Valley to happen, I do believe that you can encourage it with the right environment,” says Burden. “So, by having vibrant tech parks interacting with local communities in which value chains can be established, entrepreneurs can share experiences and technologists from different disciplines can interact all help bring new technologies to market more quickly.”
He adds, “Ultimately, if you have the right conditions you can accelerate time to market. [Having] people who have done it before helps, [as does] being near companies that need your product, being able to quickly hire (and fire) people with the skills you need, and being able to raise finance in a timely manner to keep the momentum going.”
In summary, it's easy to call into question both the seven and the never part of Seven or Never. Nonetheless, we're going to stay with the name. In the months to come, I'm going to look at some of the technologies I've written about, but I'm also interested in the technologies and companies you've followed—or better still, worked with—as they run the ponderous gauntlet toward commercial viability. Maybe we'll learn something about handicapping the next generation of nanotechnologies.
Image Art: Mark Montgomery
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.