Part 1: Product Development

For much of our recent economic history, information technology has dominated our thinking about innovation, progress and prosperity. With good reason: the IT revolution changed the world in powerful and profound ways that we're just beginning to understand and process.

But now, there's a new growth agent emerging - materials science - and it's different from its digital predecessor. As materials science and the companies it has spawned chart new territory in the fields of clean energy and green technology, the rules of innovation are being rewritten. And now this fast-growing field has the chance of fundamentally changing our economic and environmental outlook.

As this fresh catalyst takes hold, it's interesting to ask what type of company best fosters 21st century materials science breakthroughs. In addition, as a frame of reference, how do the new and emerging materials science companies compare with the powerhouse information technology companies that so clearly helped mold and shape our views on what it means to bring a product to market?

Nature's Role in the Process

In information technology, virtually any product development challenge can be overcome with more time, more money, or both. Eventually, the problem will be solved. By comparison, product development in a science company is far less predictable. The laws of nature can – and often do – get in the way of tidy, systematic forward progress.

The result is that the product developer in a materials science company is denied the typical tradeoffs of most IT development efforts. You can't remove features to hit a deadline; you can't simply add resources to force a product release into shipping earlier than expected; the relationship between resources and outcomes is not at all linear; you can't always predict the date a given set of product features will be ready for customer consumption.

The Challenge of Managing a Product Timeline

As a result, the biggest challenge with materials science is managing the product timeline so that the vagaries of science-based development efforts are properly accounted for in the plan. Workstreams, tasks and subtasks must all be defined enough to build a probabilistic assumption set around the completion times. Be ready for a task to take an unexpectedly long time to complete while others may finish early; in other words, plan for the reality that you'll "win some and lose some." Scientific research and development is far more entropic than software development.

You are Never Finished

The true skill of any product development effort is determining – and then achieving – the attributes, performance or otherwise, that will make your product sufficiently attractive to customers. Yet as a science-based company, you won't ever achieve absolute perfection; there's always the potential for a slightly better product.

For these reasons, defining the material to be released to the market is the essential art. It will seldom be a neat collection of perfectly timed features. Rather, it will be the product that is achievable in the time you have available to win in the market. But unlike IT, the laws of nature may prevent your achieving what you have planned for future releases. As you define the product roadmap, you must constantly consider the inherent uncertainty of science.

Watching the Money

Cost controls are especially important in science companies, and you need to keep them in mind at all times. In software development, the marginal costs are typically fairly low; all of the effort goes into the production of the initial code. But in hard science, while there is also a high development cost, part of the goals of development must be a reduction in marginal cost. It's far too easy to produce a great product at an unsupportable cost. In general, it's usually worth it to spend more on development to avoid heavy operating costs and to improve gross margins. The cost focus must start in the lab and carry through into the development and commercialization efforts.

A Commercially Creative Experience

Overall, the project management aspects of the science-based product development effort are the real challenge. There may be dependencies you didn't even know existed before you created your well-formatted Gantt chart. The variables you thought you understood will actually be dependent on other inputs that you hadn't even considered. In the end, the interaction between all your inputs will be the difficult aspect of your job.

But a word of caution: don't get distracted by chasing perfection. Know what you need to hit your customer requirements and know what is above-and-beyond. But also allow opportunities for accidental greatness. Do not ratchet down the creativity in your science-based product development efforts too tightly. If you do, you may miss those beautiful opportunities created by serendipity. The new discoveries that take place while you're attempting to manage a variety of unpredictable, highly inter-related variables may ultimately prove to be the real value in the scientific process – and the real achievement of your materials science company.

Chris Wheaton is Chief Operating & Financial Officer at EnerG2, an innovative five-year-old company focused on introducing advanced nano-structured materials for next-generation energy storage breakthroughs. Prior to co-founding EnerG2, he served as VP of North American Operations for Loudcloud. He has also provided product line management for a variety of successful technology delivery startups.

Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons.