When approaching prototype creation, you must make a series of decisions. This expert weighs in with her expertise. Photo courtesy

When embarking on the journey of developing and bringing a new product to the market, you as an inventor have to consider a multitude of aspects that add to the overall market success of your final product. And prototyping is one of the key product development stages that helps you achieve that.

Whether you're going to launch a hardware or a software product, or the combination of both — you need to have a prototype made. First, it allows you to validate your idea and see if it's worth investing time and money into. Second, it creates opportunities for product improvement, detection and elimination of design flaws, and cost reduction, especially during manufacturing.

Therefore, you will need to make a set of choices before you actually build a prototype to ensure that it results in a viable, cost-effective, and quality market-ready product. Let's look at major choice points and their implications that will help you navigate the process in the most efficient way.

To begin, let's look at the various options you have.

The success of any process lies in its foundation. Hence, before anything else you need to decide on the product development approach you're going to follow. Some inexperienced inventors, for instance, choose to go from product idea straight to having a prototype made. They skip three initial steps that are crucial for building a sound road map of the development process and creating a product with a maximum market potential.

In most cases, those inventors end up coming to companies that build prototypes to start from scratch. Usually, it's because they hit a dead end with their prototype or a product was manufactured with many defects. The latter is always a result of improperly optimized pre-production prototype, if optimized at all.

The extensive experience of our product development team shows that a methodological approach to the entire process, prototyping in particular, yields the most effective results. That's why we always recommend it to those inventors who choose to DIY their prototype. If you're one of them, here is a short version of the approach with steps it implies that you can use prior to prototyping. You can find the in-depth version here.

1. Product discovery

To set the path for the development of your idea you need to identify your product's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. In other words, you need to conduct a SWOT analysis, which will help you learn about:

  • intellectual property opportunities
  • your competition and target market
  • features your product should have
  • time and cost of your idea development.

2. Concept design

Based on the results of the SWOT analysis, you can establish the road map of the development of your product and get to creating a concept or industrial design. Concept design is a virtual representation of your idea translated into 2D renderings and 3D CAD models that show you a rough look and functions your product will have. These should be built in accordance with preferences of your target audience to ensure the product's market fit. Concept design is usually made by a professional Industrial Designer. But if you have a basic knowledge of how to use industrial design software applications, then you can make it yourself.

3. Market and prior art research 

Another important step before prototyping is gathering and analyzing feedback from potential consumers. This is done through market research. With a concept design developed, you can conduct focus groups and consumer surveys to understand if the audience likes your idea. The information you get will give you more opportunities to improve your idea and add necessary changes to the design before prototyping, thus reducing the cost of the process and increasing market potential.

Prior Art Search, or research of existing patents, provides some of the benefits as market research. But its main purpose is to identify similar product ideas that have already been patented, so that you can make your product stand out by adding unique features to the design, as well as avoid a conflict of patent rights.

In a follow up article next week, we will discuss more decisions you must make during the prototype process. I have also previously contributed to guest columns on the following:

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.

What startup advice and observations trended this year on InnovationMap? Founder lessons learned, the pandemic's effects on the workplace, and more. Photo via Pexels

These are the top 5 Houston innovation guest columns of 2020

2020 in review

Editor's note: InnovationMap is Houston's only news source and resource about and for startups, and some of this year's top stories were penned — or, more realistically, typed — but the Houston innovation community itself. As we get ready for 2021, let's see what guest columns were most read in 2020.

Houston expert shares why prototyping is so important to startups

Making a product that is worth further investing in, one that customers will want to buy, requires several prototypes, sometimes tens of prototypes to prove the concept and perfect your idea. Photo courtesy of OKGlobal

Written by Onega Ulanova, founder of OKGlobal

Rarely in life is anything perfect on the first attempt. Writers write drafts that are proofed and edited. Musicians practice over and over, and athletes train for years to perfect their skills before becoming pros. So, it only makes sense that a product developer would develop a prototype before manufacturing their products.

But why? Why can't a perfectly designed product go straight from CAD to production? In reality, making a product that is worth further investing in, one that customers will want to buy, requires several prototypes, sometimes tens of prototypes to prove the concept and perfect your idea. Success comes through practice, just like with the musicians and the athletes.


Click here to read the full column.

To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work. Photo via Getty Images

Written by Erik Lucken, strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

Click here to read the full column.

COVID-19 has affected how office space will be designed, says Houston expert

Here's how this work-from-home experiment has affected the office space — from a design perspective. Photo courtesy of Joe Aker

Written by Larry Lander, principal at PDR

The last nine weeks have thrust businesses large and small into an experiment unlike anything we might have ever imagined. The impact has the potential to separate businesses that will stagnate versus those that will accelerate and thrive.

Our workplaces may become smaller as we realize we don't all need to be there at the same time, but they certainly won't go away. They will, instead, be more human-centered, more technologically robust, and more resilient for the next time. So, a warning too: If the office is unsafe, scary, or demeaning — if it doesn't put people first — employees will vote with their feet.

Office workers have been empowered with the sudden ability to choose where, when, and how to work. And, certainly there have been starts and stops and plenty of stories of less-than-ideal execution, but by and large, the experiment has opened our eyes: Work has not stopped, our people are trustworthy, and, in fact, we found out they have kids, dogs, pictures on the wall, bedrooms, and kitchens just like us.

Click here to read the full column.

Houston expert: The Astrodome should be reimagined for the future of the energy industry

A Houston real estate expert suggests that the icon that is the Astrodome should be restored to be used for energy conferences and other business needs. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Written by Frank Blackwood, senior director of Lee & Associates - Houston

Over the past several years, there's been a continuous conversation about the iconic Astrodome and what should be done with it. Dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," Houstonians certainly don't want to see the Astrodome go, as it is a landmark deeply embedded into the hearts and minds of our beloved city.

Ideas have been thrown around, yet none of them seem to stick. The $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build a multi-story parking garage that was approved under Judge Ed Emmett's court in 2018 has been placed on hold until further notice.

Click here to read the full column.

6 things this Houston entrepreneur wishes he’d known before starting his company

Learn from the mistakes of a successful Houston entrepreneur — from teamwork tips to reasons why you should network with other startups. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

Written by James Ruiz, founder of Houston-based Q Engineering

Recently, I was asked what it took to build a startup in Houston. It has taken me three attempts to create a successful startup, and there were a few things that I wish I'd known right out of the gate.

Whether your goal is to exit through a sale, an IPO, or turn your team of pirates into something that looks like a company, your business model will determine how you earn revenue and profits, and you want it to be repeatable and scalable to survive. With that in mind, here are the things I've learned along the way and what I wish I had known before I started my career as an entrepreneur.

I can't emphasize how difficult starting a company can be. By reflecting on the points I mentioned here, I believe that I would have avoided some pitfalls, and maybe even made it a little farther in the journey.

Click here to read the full column.

The journey from ideation to creation, and then manufacturing can be difficult, but rewarding. Photo courtesy of OKGlobal

These are the risks and rewards of prototyping, according to Houston expert

Guest column

We live in a digital world. Music, movies, and even family photos have become primarily digital. Computer software offers us a range of comfort and efficiency and has become part of our daily routine. So, why would anyone want to build a career around physical product development?

Simple, almost every software product or next big thing relies on a well-executed physical product development project. Apps need a place to run, games need a console to be played, and pictures need a camera to be taken.

Physical product development means dreaming of something that does not yet exist and solves an existing problem. It means taking an intangible idea and making it into a physical item that people can see, touch, and use.

The journey from ideation to creation, and then manufacturing can be difficult, but rewarding. By understanding the process, you'll find that not only is your inspiration worth pursuing, but it may be one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do.

From inspiration to perspiration

Every product development project begins with a vision, the identification of a problem and a solution for that problem. That initial spark of inspiration is what drives the entire project.

Look for a problem that hasn't been solved and solve that problem, or try the reverse. Think of a product idea, and then work backwards to find the need. Regardless, one cannot be successful without the other.

Projects require this problem, or need, because it embodies the product's target market. A product idea without a well-defined need has no reason to exist, and if it did, it would be downright perplexing.

Once you identify your need and idea, start your research.

Test the validity of your idea. How much of a market exists for your problem-solving miracle? Send out surveys, look at various markets, conduct data analyses, and generally, do everything in your power to ensure that your product should be made.

Then, start making something.

From concept to reality

The design, prototype and manufacturing stages are what bring your inspiration closer to reality. Turning it into a concrete product means letting go, and that can be scary.

Initial concept designs can be done in a variety of different ways. Detailed sketches and blueprints could be drawn up, or CAD drawings can be created. This concept design can help you explain your idea to others, including partners and investors. What works even better, though, are prototypes.

A prototype is a preliminary model of your product that can help you determine the feasibility of different aspects of your design. You can make a functional prototype, which acts as a proof-of-concept for your idea, or you may create aesthetic prototypes that will test the look and feel of your product.

Once you nail down the ideal appearance and physicality of your product, you will need to combine the two disciplines as seamlessly as possible. This performance prototype will effectively demo your final product.

Finally, you can prepare your product for production. Designing for manufacturability (DFM) means ensuring that your product can be made efficiently and cost-effectively. DFM allows you to mistake-proof your product by choosing the best manufacturing materials and methods, while keeping in mind the appropriate regulations for your desired market.

From nothing into something

The product development process often changes. Trends like crowdsourcing and innovative fast-to-market solutions constantly upend the process and make it new again. Some automakers, for example, want to innovate the design process using existing customer data — similar to how companies like Microsoft and Apple create iterative versions of their software product development projects.

Getting your product to market can be tough, but certain approaches can ease the burden. Create a simpler product. Fail fast and fail cheap with lean development, meaning limit your risk to maximize your return. Also, never underestimate the importance of customer feedback and intellectual property protection throughout the process.

With that said, invest in yourself and your inspiration, and you will avoid that nagging what if-mentality that drives regret. Great reward always requires risk, but there are also ways to invest smarter. Use available resources and give your dream the best chance for success.

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.

Making a product that is worth further investing in, one that customers will want to buy, requires several prototypes, sometimes tens of prototypes to prove the concept and perfect your idea. Photo courtesy of OKGlobal

Houston expert shares why prototyping is so important to startups

guest column

Rarely in life is anything perfect on the first attempt. Writers write drafts that are proofed and edited. Musicians practice over and over, and athletes train for years to perfect their skills before becoming pros. So, it only makes sense that a product developer would develop a prototype before manufacturing their products.

But why? Why can't a perfectly designed product go straight from CAD to production? In reality, making a product that is worth further investing in, one that customers will want to buy, requires several prototypes, sometimes tens of prototypes to prove the concept and perfect your idea. Success comes through practice, just like with the musicians and the athletes.

Defining "prototype"

The word prototype derives from the Greek word meaning, "primitive form." It's an early sample or model of a product built to test a concept or process. Understanding that a prototype, by definition, is an early form of your final product, know that there is often a compromise between your prototype and the final product design. Differences in materials, manufacturing processes and design may create a slightly different look and feel of your prototype.

A full design build is expensive, and it can be time-consuming, so before manufacturing, we create a prototype. This allows you to look for any flaws and problems, figure out solutions, then rebuild with the updates. The process may repeat multiple times. Rapid prototyping is often used for your initial prototype, allowing you to inexpensively build and test the parts of the design that are most likely to be flawed, solving issues on the front end, before you make the full product.

This necessary step is needed to progress with your product development and take you further toward the commercialization and marketing of your product.

Why prototype?

Prototyping allows you to learn about the product, the design, and the functionality. By doing repetitive prototyping, you eliminate the guesswork and base your decisions on actual data and facts. Don't ever guess. Just learn. Just prototype.

Market Testing
It allows you to put a product in front of your consumers, get their opinion, and make changes based on how the consumer uses the prototype.

SaveMoney
You get to save money on initial product testing, by letting consumers test the product the way they would use it in real life.

Make Improvements
Prototyping gives you the opportunity to make improvements before putting your product into the market. You can see where/if your idea is flawed and flush it out before you manufacture products that won't sell.

SalesForecasting
This is a difficult enough task as it is, but when you have a new product, it's hard to predict how it will fare against other products in the market. By watching how consumers use the prototype, and by seeing it work against other products, you will begin to understand the sales cycle for that product, allowing you to start your forecasting.

Product designers cannot predict how a consumer will react to a new product, so they release several prototypes, and gather feedback, switching up the products until they find what works for the consumer. When the product went to manufacturing, and finally to market, it was almost guaranteed to be a success—an unintended use for prototyping, and yet one of its best uses.

Designers realize that what looks good on paper isn't always what the end-user is going to want. By getting an inexpensive prototype in front of consumers, designers have been able to get quick feedback, adjust the product, and create a winning product.

When it doubt, prototype it out

The beauty of prototyping is that each prototype interaction opens new opportunities to improve your product. In all reality, you will need more than one prototype to develop a truly valuable product. Product development can get bogged down in meetings, where the product is analyzed, and guesses are made as to "the best way," but by getting to the rapid prototype stage, you can skip some of that guesswork and replace it with real information from the customers.


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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.