Startup businesses need more than product


SPIE is the international scientific society which focuses on optical science, and SPIE activities include development of research-oriented businesses and the advancement of optics professionals. SPIE held their annual meeting Aug. 11-15, at the San Diego Convention Center and included an Aug. 13 professional development workshop on startup businesses bringing technology to market.

Luminate provides guidance to startup businesses, and Luminate managing director Sujatha Ramanujan led the workshop called “From Lab to Launch: Growing Your OPI Business.” The session was intended for scientists in their early careers who seek to convert new ideas into successful businesses.

A startup business needs the technology and solution, the market, the advantage and the team.

“All four of these things have to be present for any business to really succeed,” Ramanujan said.

The technology must solve a problem.

“You have to have the technology and the solution to the actual problem,” Ramanujan said.

Ramanujan said that the business needs to answer the question, “Who cares?” If that question can’t be answered, the technological knowledge can’t be converted into a successful company.

“I have a paper. I don’t have a business,” Ramanujan said.

An innovator should also verify the solution. The competition should be researched to ensure that the product being provided is unique, and the business should keep good records.

“Make sure you have something defensible,” Ramanujan said.

Evaluations should not come from family and friends.

“They’re not your customer feedback,” Ramanujan said.

The evaluations may reveal that other products could be better to market.

“Many businesses will pivot multiple times,” Ramanujan said.

The evaluations from industry personnel could reveal the true market.

“Sometimes when you are just out there talking to folks you stumble upon what people really want,” Ramanujan said.

A determination of who will pay for the product at its cost is also necessary.

“Figure out what they’re actually willing to pay,” Ramanujan said.

The market changes frequently.

“The best way to stay on top of that is never stop listening to what clients want,” Ramanujan said.

Potential customers will often make excuses, and when they give the reason for not being willing to purchase a good concept that reason should be taken into account.

“What comes after their ‘but’ is really important,” Ramanujan said.

A business should look at what sales methods are working for other companies.

The product advantages need to be articulated in terms of cost, outcome and environment. Other companies may be able to provide a similar product at a lower price.

“Cost can change really quickly,” Ramanujan said.

A company should seek a targeted market rather than trying to sell to all potential customers.

“To execute your plan you have to have a goal and you have to go for it,” Ramanujan said.

The team is thus essential to pursuing the goal.

“If you don’t have the right team you are going to fail. I’ve seen more companies fail because the team was bad,” Ramanujan said.

If the same goal is being pursued differences between team members are an advantage.

“You want to have technical strength, you want to have business strength, and you want to have different personalities,” Ramanujan said.

What must be the same among team members is the objective.

“You have to have common values,” Ramanujan said.

The team members need to be aligned on business goals.

“Make sure that your core team agrees,” Ramanujan said. “You cannot work with anybody. Make sure that you are similarly aligned, that you have the same goal in mind.”

Bringing together the right team is a part of forming a successful business.

“This is a hiring process also,” Ramanujan said.

The capabilities a successful business has include resources.

“You have to be really creative when you’re in a startup,” Ramanujan said.

Industry colleagues are likely to contribute to those resources.

“People will help you,” Ramanujan said. “People who are more successful are often excited to share their success.”

Resilience is another capability of successful businesses.

“You’re going to have a lot of noes, you’re going to have a lot of bad days,” Ramanujan said. “Bad days are motivating days.”

Ramanujan advised not to alienate anybody in the industry.

“Your harshest critic may become your biggest supporter,” she said.

The success of a business is often measured in sales.

“It is the hardest job in your business and it is 90% listening,” Ramanujan said. “People buy what they need and what they believe in, and they don’t buy from people they don’t trust.”

Intellectual property is a unique technology which defines a business activity.

“You establish value for your company,” Ramanujan said.

The business model must be determined; the intellectual property may consist of licensing, services such as a database or sales.

A copyright provides protection for the project. Publication of the technology in research journals places the information in the public domain but establishes credibility as well as being the first to utilize that method.

Joe Naiman can be reached by email at