Scalable Innovation: Expanding business opportunities for manufacturers & startups

Last week, Innovation Works officially launched the Scalable Innovation program to help regional manufacturers partner successfully with high-growth startup technology companies. Scalable is run by Afshan Khan, Manufacturing Program Manager for Innovation Works and the former CEO of a regional manufacturer. After a successful event in Washington, PA attended by State Sen. Camera Bartolotta and Rep. Brandon Neuman at the manufacturer SMG Global Circuits, Inc., we sat down with Afshan to discuss the program:

How did the idea for this program come about?

“From experience, I know that manufacturers have their nose to the grindstone worrying about today’s orders, tomorrow’s payroll, and next week’s sales. They have very little time other than their traditional industry connections to think about new applications and new markets for the capabilities that they have. Likewise, working with entrepreneurs, I’ve seen that they have a very strong push to reach commercialization and do product iterations at a very rapid pace and they are in search of both fundraising and customer acquisition simultaneously, so from that perspective they don’t have much energy to put to the best ways to design and manufacture their products. There are times when they even sell their products before they are designed and made.

So that’s how the entrepreneurial world works, they go out there and they convince someone that they have a very good idea solving a critical problem and suddenly they have one chance to make a first impression, and they have to make that first impression with a workable product that has to be delivered on time, otherwise they lose the mindshare of the potential investor or customer. So from that perspective they have very tight turn around times and they haven’t been able to work out their kinks and what it would take to design for manufacture their product. As a result an entrepreneur usually achieves suboptimal results for cost, quality, turnaround time, and reliability because they haven’t worked with a manufacturing expert.”

Since part of the goal of the Scalable Innovation program is to educate, train, and manage manufacturer and startup expectations, what are some common expectations and lessons?

“For the manufacturer, they have to understand that they have to work on building volume with the entrepreneur and not demanding the volume upfront. They also have to be willing to trust the entrepreneur and extend credit to a young company that doesn’t necessarily have an established track record yet.

From the entrepreneurs perspective they have to know that building a relationship with a manufacturer, particularly one that they can pick up the phone and call or visit will help them longterm to build and sustain a strong, quality delivery over time.”

Can you talk about an example of the program’s success so far?

“We have a partnership with SMG Global circuits, a manufacturer in Washington, PA. Through the Scalable program, SMG connected with Maven Machines (an AlphaLab Gear alumni company). SMG now provides some of the circuit boards Maven Machines uses for their ‘smart’ headsets that alert truck drivers of dangerous behaviors such as drowsy driving. Originally providing just a few prototypes, SMG recently filled an order for 2,000 circuit boards for Maven, a significant order for a startup.”

Another event that you put on is a Design Jam. Can you explain what that is?

“Building on the opportunities to have a focused effort of customer requirements, and hardware and software design expertise, we have developed an event called the ‘Design Jam.’ The Design Jam sessions bring together a select focus stakeholder group in an unabridged, focused way to help startup companies think about the best way to provide value to their prospective customers, and to translate that value into their product. Functional experts in software and hardware provide recommendations for the startup’s product design. This interactive session provides input into prototyping iterations and is followed by design for manufacturing support in a Build Jam as they get closer to releasing their ‘minimal viable product’ (MVP). Our aim is to have the design thinking and manufacturing plan in place initially as the company introduces their product to the market so the startup is ready to scale when they hit higher volume batches. Early stage companies in the IW portfolio also benefit from these sessions, by allowing direct customer and stakeholder input into product design, development, and manufacturing.”

Are you looking for additional manufacturers to work with the startups?

“Yes, we are looking for additional manufacturing experts in the areas of: product design, user interface design, industrial design, machining, tooling and fabrication, contract manufacturing (electronic and other types of assembly), plastics, printing and packaging. We’re building our network of companies in the region, but we need a lot more help because there are a lot more companies out there.

Manufacturers can reach out to me directly at akhan@innovationworks.org. I would be happy to chat with them and tour their facility to see how we can connect them to entrepreneurial efforts around the region and even domestically. We support a lot of startups that apply to the Hardware Cup by providing them with regional manufacturing connections.”


Look to the Innovation Works social media channels for more information and how to get involved with our programs. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

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