I’ve been reflecting on the state of product maturity at the time entrepreneurs seek external investment. I tend to use Technology Readiness Level (TRL) as a starting point for discussion with entrepreneurs.
It’s relatively easy to distinguish between ‘concepts’ (TRL2-4) and ‘development projects’ (TRL4-6) which may be suitable for pre-seed, seed or early stage investment, but it’s the stages nearer to market (TRL7-8) that have been exercising me recently. We’ve been presented with several opportunities recently, each having made first sales, and claims that investment will accelerate the company up the ‘J’-curve to substantial sales revenue.
I suggest that four questions should be posed:
- Are the installed systems the final production version? If not, can they be upgraded to this standard to provide a solid customer reference base?
- Can the first 2 years of sales post investment be fulfilled with exactly today’s products? If not, what proportion of sales over this period is contingent on further R&D, and is this provided for in the business plan?
- What ‘cost-down’ programme is envisaged to reduce manufacturing cost as volume increases? Is this already specified, or a vague statement?
- What proportion of the funds will be applied to sales & marketing versus R&D?
One opportunity seemed less attractive when we realised that the experience of 20 installations had shown that a complete product redesign was required. So the next year would be spent in development before sales could recommence. The company had reached what it saw as the finish post, but to me felt like a new starting line.
Another entrepreneur told us his product was ready for manufacture of a batch of pre-production prototypes. Further discussion revealed that at least two further design iterations were required.
A third company has placed 3 ‘beta’ units, now has 10 ‘v1’ units sold, and has demonstrated that it can sell the next 2 years’ forecast based on the current platform.
So are these companies at TRL 7, 8 or 9? Do they understand TRL or are they kidding themselves?