Traversing the Valley of Innovation Death

What gets an invention across the divide?

Kirsten Leute
Dec 5, 2017 · 4 min read

Working in technology transfer for almost two decades, I was a frequent occupant of the Valley of Innovation Death, or as I call it, the VoID. If you’re unfamiliar with the VoID, here is the traditional representation:

Inventions are created and reach a certain level of basic research. But as they attempt to transition to the big time, outside of fundamental research, they falter. Industry is not ready to take on these nascent inventions, yet they are often beyond the scope of an academic lab. However, it’s not just resources or cash that inhibits these inventions from making it out of the VoID.

You can also look at it like this:

All over the world, thousands of academic researchers are creating new inventions each year. Some of those inventions are disclosed to the technology transfer offices and between 15 and 25% of them are licensed to industry. Very few of those actually make it to commercial products.

Why is it important that technologies make it out of the VoID? Because these inventions could, with further development, lead to new products that address our world’s challenges. One of these inventions could lead to a cure for pancreatic cancer. One could provide you 100 times the battery life in your phone. Another could be the solution to our dependence on fossil fuels.

So why do many inventions die in this valley while others make it through? In my experience with these technologies trying to traverse the VoID and make it into a successful startup, here are four non-financial factors I’ve seen help innovators traverse the VoID.

1) Putting aside your paranoia

Although it is understandable to have a bit of nervousness about someone ‘stealing’ your idea, once certain protections (usually patent application filings) are in place, an openness to sharing goes a long way in order to develop your invention and get the right help for it. Yes, there are some bad actors out there (get references from people you trust!). But most are not. Without sharing information, many people will be reluctant to help you because they won’t understand and be able to assist with what you are trying to achieve.

2) Admitting you need help

Figure out what you know and are good at and where you need help. Academicians are often geniuses, but most often they are experts in certain fields and not in starting and running a company. Very few academics make great entrepreneurs. They need assistance. A well-known example of this is the partnering of UC San Francisco biochemist Herb Boyer with venture capitalist Bob Swanson. The two combined their technical, business and financial expertise to build Genentech, one of the earliest and most successful biotechnology companies.

3) Building networks/relationships

To find that help, you need to have a network to rely on. Your network will be a major resource to any invention making it through the VoID — from proof-of-concept work, to developing a business plan, to searching for funding, and, of course, running a company. Reach out to others, especially in your department, who have done this before. Find the programs on your campus where you can connect with mentors and advisors. Then go outside your campus comfort zone and find groups of investors, lawyers, accountants, and entrepreneurs who meet, share ideas, discuss opportunities, listen to pitches, or just socialize together. For ideas on creating your network, just google to find a plethora of articles on the subject (examples here, here, and here).

4) Creating a great team

Part of that network will become the team for the company. Putting together the right team early on can move your invention to real-world use in many ways including:

  • connecting you to angel capital or other sources of early financing, who are more likely to take the early risk because they know and trust your team member;
  • helping position your invention for product/market fit, which will make it easier to others to understand why and how your idea will solve a major problem;
  • providing context so you can right-size your expectations about valuation and capital requirements; and
  • helping you find other teammates, creating a virtual circle of ever-improving insight.

I think most investors cannot stress enough the importance of team. A study conducted in 2016 surveyed hundreds of VCs to discover how venture capitalists make decisions. The VCs called out the company team as the most important aspect for company success or failure.

Why should you care about the VoID? Because for the few inventions that do make it beyond the VoID, thousands of others perish in it. Some die a good and just death, but others were very promising.

Here are just a few of the companies and products that have origins with universities:

Considering the enormous amount of innovation occurring around the world, what is being left behind in the VoID?

Kirsten Leute

Written by

Osage University Partners

We’re a VC fund with a singular focus on university startups. These are our thoughts on academic spinouts, technology transfer, and venture investing.

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