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Rice University researcher discovers what makes a tech product stand out in a crowd

Turns out, timing is everything when launching a new tech product, this reacher found for Rice Business Wisdom. rawpixel.com /Pexels

From smart phones to video games to virtual reality toys, new products roll forward as relentlessly as the tides. So what, and how, should you tell consumers about your product to avoid being swept away in a sea of similar wares?

To answer this question, Rice Business professor Amit Pazgal and colleague Yuanfang Lin of Conestoga College dove into the particulars of how companies differentiate their products by informing consumers about a new product's quality.

The rush of new products, they note, is particularly intense in technology, where innovations are constant — which means consumers constantly need information about them. Traditionally, tech companies make the case for their products using advertising, free sample, product trials and splashy product demonstrations. (See your local Apple Store).

But how does a consumer's wish for information interact with their ultimate buying decision?

Timing, Pazgal and Lin found, plays a powerful role in the type of information that best influences consumers. Suppose, for example, Firm 1 offers a new product, say a smartphone with innovative features. This makes Firm 1 a pioneer. For a certain golden period, Firm 1 might hold a monopoly in the market, since there's simply no other smartphone like theirs. This is the moment, the researchers say, to offer consumers information that reveals the product's true quality and uniqueness. Because no similar product is out there, Firm 1 has the power to establish the parameters for judging its invention.

Inevitably, of course, another company (call it Firm 2) will come up with something comparable. Thanks to the heavy lifting in innovation by Firm 1, Firm 2 has the luxury to create a phone of equal or greater quality. And this is when the tide starts to turn. One might assume Firm 2 would just inform consumers of the superior quality of its product. But, surprisingly, Pazgal and Lin found that in most cases Firm 2 will instead focus on educating consumers about their preference for quality — in effect, leaving it up to the buyer to decide which of the two phones they really wants.

However, if another firm emerges with a similar product of lesser quality, its marketing will likely take yet another turn. Instead of trying to claim better quality, late entry companies offering an inferior product typically admit outright that their product isn't as well made as other versions.

That's because such firms calculate that if customers discover this themselves, they'll react badly. By telling the truth and pricing appropriately, a firm can find a calm stretch of water elsewhere in the market, someplace where it's not clashing directly with the earlier, higher quality products.

Whether it's Alexa, a smart TV or a virtual reality game, Pazgal and Lin explain, when a product enters the market for the first time, consumers need to be shown how it works. When a second product in the same line is introduced by a different company, the marketing task changes: it's now more important to show consumers how to identify a quality product, and then let them choose for themselves.

Any time a company launches a device or service into the world, in other words, it needs to trust consumers' ability to learn — and not drown them with too much information. Informed what good quality looks like, Pazgal and Lin conclude, consumers will swim on their own to the item they truly want.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Amit Pazgal is Friedkin Chair in Management and Professor of Marketing and Operations Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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InformAI has three AI-based products geared at improving health care. Photo via Getty Images

In Houston, we’re lucky to have top-tier doctors in the Texas Medical Center, ready to treat us with the newest technology. But what about our family members who have to rely on rural hospitals? Thanks to one Houston company, doctors in smaller community hospitals may soon have new tools at their disposal that could improve outcomes for patients around the world.

Since InnovationMap last caught up with Jim Havelka, CEO of InformAI, two years ago, that hope has come far closer to a reality. InformAI is a VC-backed digital health company. Part of JLABS @ TMC innovation facilities, the company uses artificial intelligence to develop both diagnostic tools and clinical outcome predictors. And two of the company’s products will undergo FDA regulatory testing this year.

SinusAI, which helps to detect sinus-related diseases in CT scans, received its CE Mark — the European equivalent of FDA approval — last year and is being sold across the Atlantic today, says Havelka. He adds that in the United States alone, there are roughly 700,000 sinus surgeries that the product is positioned to support.

Another product, RadOnc-AI, is designed to help doctors prescribe radiation dose plans for head and neck cancers.

“Ideally the perfect plan would be to provide radiation to the tumor and nothing around it,” says Havelka. “We’ve built a product, RadOnc-AI, which autogenerates the dose treatment plan based on medical images of that patient.”

It can be an hours-long process for doctors to figure out the path and dose of radiation themselves, but the new product “can build that initial pass in about five minutes,” Havelka says.

That in itself is an exciting development, but because this technology was developed using the expertise of some of the world’s top oncologists, “the first pass plan is in line with what [patients would] get at tier-one institutions,” explains Havelka. This creates “tremendous equity” among patients who can afford to travel to major facilities and those that can’t.

To that end, RadOnc-AI was recently awarded a $1.55 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, a state agency that funds cancer research. The Radiological Society of North America announced late last year that InformAI was named an Aunt Minnie Best of Radiology Finalist.

“It’s quite prestigious for our company,” says Havelka. Other recent laurels include InformAI being named one of the 10 most promising companies by the Texas Life Science Forum in November.

And InformAI is only gaining steam. A third product is earlier in its stage of development. TransplantAI will optimize donor organ and patient recipient matches.

“A lot of organs are harvested and discarded,” Havelka says.

His AI product has been trained on a million donor transplants to help determine who is the best recipient for an organ. It even takes urgency into account, based on a patient’s expected mortality within 90 days. The product is currently a fully functional prototype and will soon move through its initial regulatory clearances.

The company — currently backed by three VC funds, including DEFTA Partners, Delight Ventures, and Joyance Partners — is planning to do another seed round in Q2 of 2023.

“We’ve been able to get recognized for digital health products that can be taken to market globally,” says Havelka.

But what he says he’s most excited about is the social impact of his products. With more money raised, InformAI will be able to speed up development of additional products, including expanding the cancers that the company will be targeting. And with that, more and more patients will one day be treated with the highest level of care.

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