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Houston expert: How to navigate the innovation journey — from PoC to MVP

This Houston expert describes the main phases central to any innovation journey. Photo courtesy of Slalom

As a technologist, one thing I learned early in my career about the technology landscape is its constant improvements and I understood that companies who kept up with those changes remain successful and competitive. However, only companies mastering a disciplined innovation framework are truly able to harness the power of emerging tech to help them solve their most complex business challenges.

Innovative solutions come in all shapes and sizes, but not all of them should come to life. Specifically, when considering digital solutions, there are a few widely accepted innovation approaches in the product engineering field. This quick guide describes the main phases central to any innovation journey.

Feasibility Study

Ideating can be fun but executing a feasibility study will ground you on what will work and what may still be science fiction. The thought here is to spend two to four weeks doing research and talking to experts to answer a few key questions that will help you determine the feasibility of your idea or concept. Through the study, you will learn how to look at it from both a technology and a business perspective. More importantly, to answer the question 'Is it even possible to accomplish your goal with this technology?'

A subject matter expert (SME) will quickly tell you yes or no and why. If you find the technology is indeed suitable, then you will move on to evaluate the business feasibility. Does it make financial sense? Does it work within established business policies? Will there be a healthy Return On Investment (ROI) within an acceptable timeline? If you find positive responses to those questions, then you should feel confident to move on to a Proof of Concept (PoC) or even jump to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). On the other hand, if either the technology is not feasible or the solution doesn't make business sense, then you've just saved yourself a lot of time, budget, and possibly headaches.

Proof of Concept

This phase is about testing the theory and proving the hypothesis, technically speaking. You'll need to go through a Proof of Concept if the technology solution you have in mind hasn't been tested in either a lab setting or in the field. Thinking outside of the box and innovating is all about trying new approaches and solving problems in a novel way, so you'll have to spend the time and budget ensuring it will work as expected. However, you must be very careful to not get carried away.

A proper PoC should take four to six weeks, max. It should help you quickly determine whether the technology will live up to its promise or if you need to pivot to another approach. Building a team with the right skillset is vital to this process because they are the ones evaluating the proposed solution and comparing it to the expected outcomes. Any signs of discord should empower the team to stop the project, saving further investment, and should help you decide if another approach is even possible. If all criteria has been met, then move on to the MVP stage.

Minimum Viable Product

At this point, you have confirmed the solution you imagined works and you are ready to unlock its potential. But you must start small. You must prioritize all the features you want this product to have and decide what the core functionality should be. This is important because if you choose too many features to start with, you may initially spend too much money and time and may even miss a window of business opportunity you may have lined up. Hence the name of the MVP, it is a product that employs the minimum time, money, and features while still being a viable product.

In summary, if you have an innovative idea for a technology solution, I recommend you first determine whether it's feasible, both technology and business wise, through a short and focused study. If feasible, then you can put that concept to the test through a PoC and determine its desirability. If this product is indeed desirable, then moving into building an MVP will help you understand its viability – and that is how you can successfully innovate while keeping risks at bay.


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Alfredo Arvide is the director for the products and innovation practice at Slalom Consulting in Houston, where he helps clients solve their most complex business challenges by leveraging emerging technologies and applying innovative technology solutions.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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