The big picture: Exploiting good ideas

Turning bright ideas into profitable products and services is recognised as a major challenge for the UK. But there are ways to tackle it says David Probert.

David Probert is head of the Centre for Technology Management at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing
David Probert is head of the Centre for Technology Management at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing

It is often said that the UK is good at coming up with new ideas and technologies – but much less good at exploiting them. If we are to compete in global markets, and build sorely needed economic growth, this weakness must be addressed.

But the commercialisation of early stage technologies is far from straightforward. Turning basic science and exploratory ideas into viable products and services involves manifold challenges, not to mention knowledge, skills and finance.

First we must identify which ideas or technologies have the greatest chance of success in the commercial world. This requires ways to estimate necessary investment in time and money for realisation of an idea – and an estimation of how successful it will be, so that scarce resources are not wasted on ideas that will ultimately fail or underachieve.

Managing the so-called ‘fuzzy front end’ of new product development is important if costly mistakes are to be avoided. It is estimated that 80% of product cost is committed by the end of the concept design stage – when top management may have little interest and understanding of market conditions is low.

There are a host of variables to build into the equation. How are we going to create value from the idea? What is the best business model? Should we licence the technology to others or use it ourselves? Are there services we could combine with it? Do we need to source additional technologies? Should we manufacture in-house or outsource from an external supplier? Who will own the IP – and how do we make sure our interests are protected?

For every aspect of this list it is essential to quantify the risks that may arise and to identify ways of overcoming them. Another essential skill is being able to present a persuasive business case in order to attract finance for internal development – or to sell the idea to someone else.

Finally, continually monitoring new developments in relevant market sectors is essential. Be aware of what competitors are up to and to keep abreast of new technologies that may be of complementary or disruptive effect in your field.

David Probert is head of the Centre for Technology Management at the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing