Image of Business Instructional Facility

Sep 10, 2020 2020-09 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

How to get complex technology off the ground in new communities

This article first appeared on Built In.

By: Zack Kertcher, clinical assistant professor at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, and researcher, teacher and thought leader on innovation and data science.

When tech entrepreneurs want to enter the market, they face a big challenge: how to get their product out to consumers in new areas and convince these consumers of the benefits. Given that conventional wisdom states nine out of 10 startups fail, these connections for innovators are essential. We’re losing enormous numbers of products and services with high potential and huge payoff.

So how can we make sure the best products have the best chance to succeed? Connecting with collaborators in other fields and creating use cases may be the key to helping new technological innovations get off the ground.

When innovators from a core field work with collaborators in other technical fields — a process called co-linking — they are confronted with the needs of users in these areas. This helps to translate the use of the technology in ways that will enable wider use and acceptance.

For example, Tim Berners-Lee originally developed the World Wide Web to address knowledge coordination within organizationally dispersed high-energy physics experiments. And while originally intended as a tool to improve agricultural production, modern statistics has expanded to alter research practices in diverse fields of science and led to the emergence of multiple new industries. The Monte Carlo simulation method, that was designed during the Manhattan Project to aid in the development of the hydrogen bomb, has expanded to the financial industry, enabling the industry to move to probabilistic financial modeling and offer new types of products.

Working with collaborators in another field and creating use cases also allows new users to buy into the potential of a complex technology. This acceptance, based on my recent research, also depends greatly on the innovation being able to expand in a way that it solves problems not only in areas of initial collaboration but also areas with similar problems. In other words, if you solve a scale problem for astronomers, you might also solve a scale issue for life scientists.

Of course, evangelizing the innovation and connecting to collaborators in other fields is not enough. It is all contingent on support from broader key institutions, such as governments, funding agencies and venture capitalists, which can provide incentives for innovation developers and entrepreneurial adopters in other fields to seek each other out and develop shared solutions.

What innovation expansion means for startups

Tech entrepreneurs, indeed any business leader thinking of how to increase the potential of their product, can take four key lessons from innovation expansion:

  1. The easiest way to test the viability of your product is to first find a field that shares similar problems to the issue the innovation seeks to solve. Adapting your product for that first new field may give you clear ideas of where and how your product might need to evolve to suit the needs of user groups in other fields.
  2. Find a source of funding you can use to incentivize those cross-field connections. Venture capitalists or government funding can often be used to initiate cross-field projects that can serve as a launching pad and subsequent diffusion for your innovation.
  3. A great way to obtain both partners in other fields and funding is to develop use cases — idealized but believable examples of how your innovation could go on to solve broader problems. Successfully developing use cases require an understanding of the challenges in a field. Your collaborators in a given field can help translate your innovation to match these problems. New use cases serve as proof of concept that show potential partners ways forward with the innovation in areas not initially considered to be targets.
  4. And finally, keep your eyes open for creative uses by consumers. You may find your product being used in ways you did not foresee and those new applications of your innovation can serve as means of accessing further new audiences and markets that you may not have previously considered viable. Demonstrating that your product is expandable — versatile and adaptable — will motivate new consumers and marketplaces to buy into its potential.

The diffusion of innovations can take multiple paths and trajectories, and these lessons can serve as a means of enhancing both the usability and the applicability of new technologies. New technologies may fail if users aren’t convinced it will solve their problems, so it’s critical that you demonstrate how the product benefits both its intended users and those further away from the targeted field. Collaborations are necessary for this process to work. This involves innovators and collaborators from other fields co-linking, developing use cases and using catalytic funding for innovation expansion.