Innovators describe clearing hurdles in developing new products

Published in UT San Diego, December 18, 2012

Finishing your product and then selling it to a paying customer are big hurdles for both startups and large companies. All along the watch tower, you have to overcome constant impediments, complications, false starts and pivots, and failure is often more frequent than success.

So at CONNECT’s recent 2012 Most Innovative New Products Awards, we decided to ask several finalists, “What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to create this product?”

Here is what we heard.

• “We had a modest financial hurdle. All we needed to do was come up with a measly $1 billion to build and launch something that had never been done before,” said Bruce Rowe, director of public relations at ViaSat, in talking about Exede Internet, a high capacity satellite Internet system. Chuck Pateros, the corporate patent manager, added, “We had to have guts. Our company has a can-do attitude.”

• “Our biggest challenge was the sheer number of different robots and sensors that we had to work with (in creating a software platform for robots),” said Ben Hardin, the technical lead for 5D Robotics. The company started building the software three years ago and made its first sale a year ago.

• For Althea Technology’s Crystalomics, the major obstacle was to figure out how to scale protein crystallization technology in a uniform way to be able to mass produce a biologic therapy, said Tod Lauerman, corporate development. Before Althea’s invention, protein therapies could take a few hours to administer by intravenous drip in a doctor’s office or hospital. Now, they can be self-administered at home with a simple injection. Althea “married our technology with chemical engineers who worked out all the variables over a two-year period,” he said.

• With Studio BioFoam, which is used for movie-set construction, “our biggest obstacle was to go from the chemistry we were making in batch modes to develop a new set of chemicals that could be mass manufactured down a continuous product line. That was the breakthrough that allowed us to be cost-competitive, quality-competitive and green,” said David Saltman, CEO of Malama Composites. Prior to Studio BioFoam, sets were primarily built with toxic materials. Saltman said that Studio BioFoam was used by the La Jolla Playhouse to make the robots in the recent production of “Yoshimi Meets the Pink Robots.”

• For Atlantis Technologies, the major challenge was “being disciplined and finding the right strategic partners with whom we wanted to work. We teamed with a large utility, a large beverage company and a large service provider in mining and fracking,” said Kelly Sarber, in charge of business development. Atlantis has developed a low-cost industrial wastewater desalination system.

• “We had to achieve 99.999 percent effectiveness and prove it to the government. False positives would kill our own troops. And to date, we have had zero of those,” said Timothy Hill, Cubic Defense Applications. Their product is DCID-TALON (discounted combat identification), a rifle-mounted laser system that prevents fratricide on the battlefield by allowing users to instantly identify their friends in the fog of war.

The awards ceremony featured the debut of “They Came Here” — a short video about many of the inspiring scientists and entrepreneurs, including Irwin Jacobs, Craig Venter and Jonas Salk, who came to San Diego and became leaders in our region’s innovation economy. So when San Diego-born civic entrepreneur Malin Burnham received the Distinguished Contribution Award in Technology Innovation, he asked the “native San Diegans” to stand up. When only a few people did, he noted how dependent our region is on “immigrants.”

This event smacks you right in the face with the sheer enormity of the innovation and invention that exists in this region. It is awe-inspiring to realize the amount of time, passion, brains and money that on a daily basis are “overcoming obstacles.”

Rule No. 143: You don’t see a hurdle as an obstacle until you jump over it and look back in surprise and delight.

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