Product Concepts Before Their Time: An Intellectual Capital Asset?
Those of us in the consumer business have seen product concepts come and go often to be rediscovered by new brand managers. The time value of a concept has a fast-eroding value. Most advice in articulating new product concepts is to ignore the technical and regulatory barriers to entry and let your imagination fly. Yet another source of new ideas comes from imagining how technology might be adapted to a business or brand. The latter comes not from the consumer or marketer, but from those with a leg into current technology. In either case acceptance and investment into new products requires further at-risk development to meet consumer need and financial opportunity. But what if technology has not yet arrived or has evolved to underpin a great marketing concept? You might call this the “technology gap”. In my experience in consumer healthcare, I can recall three examples of such gaps. In all 3 cases as technology became available each of these concepts became actionable, albeit decades later.
First, in the mid-1980’s a small entrepreneur approached us to explain how proteomics, the identification of myriad proteins in human samples could form distinct patterns to diagnose diseases. At the time the process involved laborious 2-dimensional chromatography of countless proteins. The concept made sense, but the technology for rapid analysis and interpretation of proteins would come many years later. How this could be used in consumer healthcare, while still up for grabs, may have medical value, but to be useful diagnostic information needs to inform treatment or purchase decisions.
Second, another small entrepreneur in the mid-1980’s tried to convince us that a watch could be developed with the ability to see below the skin to measure glucose. The technology was crude and badly underdeveloped. Now wearable glucose analysis is commercial, albeit with differing technology.
Third, while working on cough with outside academic investigators I recalled from my graduate training a professor with an electrical engineering degree working on spectral analysis of frog vocalizations. Why not apply these capabilities to human cough and use the data to diagnose and manage cough? I met with him to explore interest, but the collaboration did not gain further traction. Today there are 2 or 3 groups commercializing such a device. Why? Cell phones and internet apps along with proprietary algorithms have now made this technology portable and possible at scale. Today with Covid such devices may be valuable for the early recognition and management of the disease especially when SARS-Cov-2 variants may or may not involve the lungs and large airway.
Each of these stories suggests that to commercialize even the best product concepts requires technology that makes them immediately actionable. That begs the question of what to do with prescient concepts and the larger question of intellectual capital preservation. Well received product concepts whose technology prevents its development should be preserved as proprietary intellectual capital and made searchable for future marketers and product developers. Alternatively searching for outsourced technology solutions through licensing, acquisition, or funding of startups may in some cases provide a rapid path to market to bridge the technology gap, or at least to document current technology limitations. Future marketers can then evaluate these brand resources each year to update the state of limiting technologies and reassess their commercial value.