Nanotechnology start-ups with big, bold dreams based on cutting-edge research must think a bit more about their customers and a bit less about their technology.
Nanotechnology start-ups with big, bold dreams based on cutting-edge research must think a bit more about their customers and a bit less about their technology, warns Donald Fitzmaurice, venture partner with venture capital fund Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), Dublin, Ireland.
Nanotechnologist Fitzmaurice fears that commercial success could bypass industrial newcomers who fail to take account of their customers’ immediate needs. One of DFJ’s portfolio companies, Massachusetts-based Konarka technologies, presents a glowing example of the ’pragmatic marketing strategy’ he prescribes.
The company focuses on the development and commercialisation of TiO2 based roll-to-roll photovoltaics. ’Konarka really wants to change the way power is generated across the globe,’ he said, ’but their first product is going to be a patio light!’ Companies have got to get themselves noticed right away - both to make money and make their name. The history of nanotech start-ups is littered with examples of companies with grand ideas in place of immediate - considerably less grand - products.
Fitzmaurice outlined his views at the nanotechnology business congress NanoTrends in Munich, Germany. It’s an approach firmly in line with that of Stephan Haubold, founder and CEO of Hamburg University spin-off Nanosolutions.
Haubold learnt the hard way. His team developed a nanoparticulate luminescent pigment for use in an ink suitable for inkjet printing - the printed ink is invisible to the naked eye but fluoresces under UV light. ’Think of all those fraud-proof security tagging applications’, he tempted potential customers being shown the pigment - a bottle of white powder. He was missing the ink and the printer, he now realises. ’That is what your customer needs,’ he said, ’Not a pigment.’ Marketing with just the pigment was hopeless.
As an extension to this customer focus, Nanosolutions’ latest innovation is as much about marketing as technology. The company has developed a technique to suspend gold nanoparticles in an ’ink’ that will fill any fountain pen. Why fill a pen that costs hundreds of pounds with cheap ink when you could use 24 carat gold, he reasons. But marketing this to companies more used to selling Louis Vuitton bags presented a unique challenge. ’Sorting out the packaging took as long as the ink to develop,’ he said.