From lab to market: the importance of prototyping

© 2020 EPFL / NANOLIVE‘s novel CX-A defines a new standard for live cell imaging in 96 well plates for continuous organelle monitoring in cell populations.

© 2020 EPFL / NANOLIVE‘s novel CX-A defines a new standard for live cell imaging in 96 well plates for continuous organelle monitoring in cell populations.

In their developments, startups face an important challenge: creating a prototype. A crucial step, where many risks need to be overcome and different skills to be merged.

“Entrepreneurs all face pressure to deliver a product quickly, within the bounds of time and wherewithal that were allotted to them. Executing a prototyping strategy given these constraints is a daunting task”, explains Laurent Balmelli, engineer, multipreneur and invited professor at Keio University, Tokyo. “Implementing such a strategy mostly equates to identifying and collecting market feedback, which can be technologically and operationally challenging.”

“A product truly exist if it is catering to a market”

One of the main risks is building a prototype that does not meet a market need. Indeed, technologists tend to remain focused on the innovativeness of their technology, when they should think of the problems it will solve and of the need for it. “The goal is not to obsess over making a perfect prototype, but instead to concentrate on showing how a concept works and how it might satisfy the needs of users”, reminds Isabel Casado Harrington, program manager at enable, a program at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) aimed at facilitating the commercialization of innovative technologies. According to Balmelli, a product truly exists if it is catering to a market; otherwise, it is DOA (Dead on Arrival).

“The academic world is, by design, focused on technology. This is because the funding that is provided for performing the research has mostly a technological aim. In this case the return on investment is filing for inventions and publishing articles”, adds the engineer. “User-centricity is mostly appealing when a market-driven, i.e. primarily monetary return on investment is the goal. However, the recognition that universities gain from spinning-off their technology has started to favour more complex (e.g. public-private) sources of funding.”

Developing a technology while reaching the market early enough: a balance difficult to find

“The new venture should start with identification of the unmet need (problem). After problem identification, the appropriate technology that has a potential to solve the problem should be searched for”, says Danuta Cichocka, CEO at Resistell, an EPFL spin-off developing the world’s fastest phenotypic antibiotic susceptibility test, which has raised close to 1 million in seed financing round and a few awards in 2018. The EPFL and the Resistell team of physicists, physicians and microbiologists have been researching the development of the diagnostic tool since 2012. Resistell was incorporated in April 2018 in Basel to take the technology to the next level and to transfer the laboratory prototypes into a Minimal Viable Product that could be easily operated by laboratory technicians in hospital laboratories

Guillaume Petit-Pierre, Co-founder of the medtech Artiria – incorporated in August 2019 – which provides micro-actuated device allowing treating vascular diseases, shares the same views. “We observe examples where a great application is developed without solving any medical problem. The wise approach is to find a need and then to adapt the technology to meet it”.

Moving from the prototype to the final product is a long way

“While in academia it’s enough to demonstrate a few times that the method is working to publish a paper, in diagnostic lab it’s about demonstrating the robustness and reproducibility. The machine must be robust enough to keep on working constantly, it must be easy to handle, and the method has to be reproducible on multiple machines and by multiple users”, stresses Cichocka. “And it’s not only about technology. The company must also address the following issues: laboratory protocols, standard operating procedures (SOPs), training of personnel. In order to be placed on the market, the technology also has to meet certain quality standards (e.g. meet various ISO standards) and it has to comply with adequate regulations.”

She also emphasizes the importance of keeping in mind the financial viability. According to her, very innovative and young technologies are often too expensive to be attractive on the market. They also require too many years of development before they can generate Return on Investment (ROI), and thus such technologies are not attractive to investors, especially to business angels that often finance the start-ups at early stage.

Making mistakes as quickly as possible:  an evolutionary necessity for success

“Entrepreneurs should hurry to make the necessary mistakes as soon as possible”, says Dr. Yann Cotte, CEO of Nanolive, a company incorporated in 2013 that has developed a disruptive proprietary technology, which allows for the very first time to explore a living cell instantly in 3D and without damaging it. Nanolive has raised 13 million so far and the enterprise commercializes its products since 2016. 

Dr. Cotte observes a tendency among scientists to procrastinate what he calls the “moment of truth”, which is to face the early prototype with the potential customer. “As long as you just stay with your product it's very comfortable to delay this moment. Many excuses can be found, such as the technology is not ready yet or, even worst, it is not perfect.”

When finally reaching the market, new challenges appear. Dr. Cotte identifies two main pitfalls with disruptive technologies. The first one he says is to focus only on the potential, assuming that one day the market will be ready for this innovation. However, a balance has to be found. “By being in contact with the customer, another trap is to become a simple service provider. The risk is to neglect the potential of the technology, what makes the value of the company.”

Learning from feedbacks

Artiria, Resistell and Nanolive all agree: in their entrepreneurs’ journeys, prototyping plays a crucial role. “Prototypes are used to confirm the technology’s principle. A product is a very specific application of a technology. You need a basis for making a decision. Each time, prototyping is used to validate important questions”, explains Dr. Yann Cotte, while Laurent Balmelli insists on the role of feed-backs: “My experience as an entrepreneur made me realize that building a successful product goes through honing your skills around learning from user feedback. When starting a new company, your prototyping process will be mostly ad-hoc unless you build from past experience. I had to go through multiple iterations in order to find an efficient way to test my ideas.”