This Little Piggy Went to Market

Innovation can be hard, but what's even harder sometimes is bringing cool, innovative ideas to market. In January, industry webzine Ubiquity took a look inside how the U.S. Department of Defense does it by <a href="http://ubiquitydev.acm.org/article.cfm?id=2076024">interviewing Ellison "Dick" Urban</a>, a former program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and now the Washington operations director at <a href="http://www.draper.com/">Draper Laboratory</a>. Urban created a 10-point checklist that all DARPA project managers learn, to ensure defense-funded research eventually turns into technology that the U.S. military uses in the field. The points aren't a "cookbook approach," he said. "I think of it as a common sense approach to increase the probability of success." His lessons hold well for any inventor. Here are some highlights.

Own a discriminating technology

This just means inventors should own their technology ideas and their ideas should be so unique, there are no competitors. Inventors should make sure their idea isn't just unique now, Urban said, but will still be one-of-a-kind in the future, when the technology comes to market.

Make a commitment

After talking with their potential customers, developers should set a deadline for when they'll have a demonstration ready for the customers to see. They should invite their customers to their meetings. "Don't get their hopes up and then disappear," Urban said.

Walk a mile in a warrior's boots

This could be fun. "Put on boots and jeans and go on a field exercise, ride on a ship, fly in a fighter," Urban said. Developers should talk a lot to the people they hope will use their technologyin Urban's case, members of the U.S. army, navy and air forceand visit them where they work. Back at the lab or office, developers should keep the people they talked to vividly in mind. "Put a picture of Sgt. Gomez on your desk and caption it with 'This is the person I'm trying to help,'" Urban suggested.

Work the acquisition system

"Get organization charts for your customer's organization," Urban said. "Trace a red line through all the organization groups through which the money relevant to your project flows. Ignore everything not in the red line." Inventors should brief the important groups as often as possible and persist in asking for the help they need, such performing in-field tests or locking in monetary support.

Look for windows of opportunity

Developers should look for times when their customer organization might be especially amenable to a new product: When their customers have upgrades planned, for example, or when what they already own gets old and outdated.

Don't forget the little things

Don't forget to thank everybody, including secretaries, technicians, graduate students, contractors and others, Urban said. "Be sincere. Be honest."

6 Tips for Inventors From a DARPA Program Manager