An Inside Look to Analytical Innovation
During the 2014 R&D 100 Awards event, R&D Magazine expanded the banquet to hold four technology panels during the day. The first panel focused on analytical instrumentation and the innovation behind four R&D 100-winning technologies and the complexity of bringing such instrumentation to the market. Speakers of the panel included Travis Burt, Product Marketing Manager, Agilent Technologies; Robin Cantor, President and Founder, STAR Cryoelectronics; Ching Wu, CEO, Excellims; and HJ Jost, Product Manager of OP TIRS, Thermo Fisher Scientific. Each gave feedback as to the issues of creating new analytical instrumentation and the complexity of the innovation process.
Difficulties in creating new analytical instrumentation
With the push to market new and innovative analytical instrumentation products, it’s of utmost importance to deliver an instrument that people will like and can be used by customers. It’s important for corporations to research their customers’ needs and activities to generate instrumentation that meets those needs.
Ching Wu, CEO, Excellims Corp. echoes this idea by saying it’s easy to have new ideas and build new instruments, but the question becomes who will buy that instrument. Is that instrument truly useful? To develop a groundbreaking and innovative analytical technology, corporations need to understand market needs before endeavoring on the development of new ideas.
Corporations face long development cycles and some lack resources or resource availability. These are the most challenging issues to developing new analytical instrumentation, according to HJ Jost, Product Manager of OP TIRS, Thermo Fisher Scientific. There’s also the need for interdisciplinary collaboration in the development of new products. It’s important for instrument vendors to take into account customer’s views.
Travis Burt, Product Marketing Manager, Agilent Technologies, expands upon this idea by saying once a company has a return on investment (ROI) for a product, then the product can be mass marketed. The challenge here is that the market can be niched. Product developers sometimes need to make tough decisions about which of their ideas to develop and continue expanding, while staying true to their core.
From a smaller company perspective, Robin Cantor, President and Founder of STAR Cryoelectronics, says that most of the company’s products are aimed at very small niche markets. The main issue for STAR Cryoelectronics is funding—finding the funding to develop the technology or product. According to Cantor, most venture capital funding sources aren’t interested in funding an analytical technology unless the product is very advanced and high-tech. In other words, venture capitalists aren’t interested if there’s not a huge market potential. STAR Cryoelectronics has a SBIR program and has been pretty successful, according to Cantor, in generating funding support through the program.
The complexity of creating new instruments
Is the process for creating new instruments becoming more complex? The answer: Developing an analytical instrument has never been simple.
According to Wu, the development of an analytical instrument has never been simple as much goes into the engineering of a functional product. When talking about an analytical instrument there are two crucial parts: the hardware/instrument developments and software developments. The process always starts with figuring out what a customer needs, and then figuring out technical specifications and what a company can build from that given knowledge.
Overall the process is getting more complex. According to Jost, the big hurdle to overcome is regulatory requirements. These requirements aren’t decreasing and they must be applied to the development process of any analytical instrument. These requirements are applied to the manufacturing chain and all the parts that go into the final product. They are even present in the application side, as a company must consider in their development process what regulatory requirements a customer will have and make sure their software is compliant with those regulatory environments. And that, according to Jost, makes the process more complex from his view. Burt seconds this notion, and notes there are some regulatory requirements regarding important testing for specific countries and regions globally which must be met to sell a product in those particular countries.
For Cantor, the situation is a little different as STAR Cryoelectronics looks at very specialized niche markets. For example the company’s R&D 100 Award-winning Superconducting Tunnel Junction (STJ) X-ray Spectrometer, developed in conjunction with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is used by customers of synchrotron facilities. These customers are used to working with prototype and even beta prototype systems that may not have all the bell and whistles of highly developed, highly evolved products. So, in some respect, Cantor says the process is a little simpler for STAR Cryoelectronics. However, export laws and regulations are a bit confining, according to Cantor, especially in the case where the company has some technology that’s on the commerce control list.
Cantor also notes that STAR Cryoelectronics in many cases has much trouble finding qualified machine shops that can build the components needed. He notes the company is developing a lot of welding technologies on their own as a way of producing the para magnetic salt pills that are part of the solid-state refrigeration in the cryo stand.
What takes precedence: Time-to-market or technological innovation?
With the push to get products to the market quickly to fit research needs, some companies might push time to market. However, most of our panelists sided with technological innovation, but acknowledged it’s hard to balance both.
While time-to-market is important, it’s useless unless a company has developed an analytical tool that solves a fundamental problem or a customer’s or research need. This requires innovation, according to Wu, doing something new and validating it on the market.
According to Jost, it’s hard to balance both time-to-market and technological innovation because time-to-market is somewhat becoming more important in terms of ROI. The mentality of get it out, get it out, get it out, pushes ROI calculation to come to fruition earlier. There’s always that pressure on companies to balance ROI with new solutions for customers.
A successful product, according to Burt, is one that customers find particularly helpful in faster testing, cheaper testing and that can further insights into R&D and doesn’t need to provide a differentiation from other products on the market. That differentiation does come from innovation. This innovation, according to Burt, can be, to some extent, directed during the product development and according to the specifications that are laid out. By this, Burt means innovation itself doesn’t necessarily have to be there in existence prior to finding an opportunity. The innovation can come along with the project, and that can present the balance needed between time-to-market and how far a company takes that innovation. However, differentiation is an important part of new product development.
Cantor agrees with aforementioned, and believes that innovation and new feature developments are important considerations. If the innovation isn’t there, the time-to-market may not be relevant. So, a new product must be innovative and truly be a technology that customers want, according to Cantor.