By: John Ujvari, SBIR Program Specialist, NC SBTDC
Akin to raising a child, building a business around a commercializable technology is a long, stressful, although mostly exhilarating process. The day you start your business may be of your most memorable experiences. The horizon appears limitless and your dreams abound. Challenges, however, arise. The first money into the business, often SBIR and STTR Phase 1, acts to soothe the business and get it on track to direct the technology to the next milestone. Often the first submission of a Phase 1 proposal does not lead to funding. The sleepless nights continue, until after two or three resubmissions, the project is finally funded.
The results of the phase 1 research prove that your technology, once just a glimmer in your eye, has great potential. The next major hurdle becomes turning the technology into a commercializable product. Developing a phase 2 proposal, which includes a detailed commercialization plan is a similarly cumbersome and time-consuming task. A commercialization plan requires countless hours of interviewing potential customers, follow-on investors and researching competitors. Most people you reach out to do not respond and you begin to think that commercializing a technology is more than you bargained for. But perseverance and patience reign. You stick with it and after several months, you have the information you need to wrap a compelling business case around your technology.
Your phase 2 SBIR/STTR is funded and work commences. Over the next two years, your technology blooms. Your research is, for the most part, complete and development ensues. The technology is field tested, re-worked and tested again. There are numerous bumps in the road. Your technology doesn’t scale, you can’t find adequate business space and team members don’t work out. You are perplexed and wonder what is going on. You work out the complex technical kinks in the technology, over many sleepless nights, and then, finally, the phase 2 work is completed. Your team is extremely proud that the solution you had originally hoped to create in your technology is now a reality. It seems like the most difficult part is behind you now.
The process of acquiring your first customer denotes that commercialization has now commenced. You’ve never done this before and you are learning on the fly. Surrounding yourself with strong influences, including a board of advisors and legal and accounting support goes a long way in helping to walk you through the process of marketing, selling, manufacturing and distribution. Mentorship, through the SBTDC, for example is the key to becoming successful.
Much sooner than expected, the business expenses start to take a toll on your bank account. You need a source of funding. You sell some investments to get the mounting expenses paid. Getting into the big leagues in business often means that you will have to hand off many of the business development and investment tasks to someone with more experience. You have difficulty letting go, but know that doing so will allow your technology and business reach its full potential. You hire a CEO with experience in your industry who takes the lead on many of the operational tasks and successfully attracts significant outside funding. You remain an integral part of the business, but your day-to-day tasks have changed significantly.
There comes the day that your business has attracted the attention of a suitor, a larger company that would like to acquire your business. The news is bitter sweet. The potential financial reward, the opportunity for your product to gain a world-wide reach is coupled with the melancholy that comes with seeing your baby all grown up and riding off into the sunset. It’s been a long road. Was it all worth it? Indeed it was. You started from scratch, you rode the highs as well as the lows, and at the end of the day, your contribution to society, and possibly the world, is appreciated by many, but no one more than your own self.