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

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.

Save Money
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.

Sales Forecasting
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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Innovative Texas-based ride-share rolls into Houston with new cars and delivery service

Alto is a go

Houstonians who are interested in an alternative to Uber — and don't mind giving a Dallas-based company a shot — can now look for a new ride. Alto, the ride-share and delivery company based in Big D, has announced its expansion plans to Houston. The company is now offering pre-scheduled rides; Houston residents will be able to book on-demand rides starting October 1, according to a press release.

As CultureMap previously reported, Alto touts itself as a safer, more consistent approach to hailing a ride. Founded in 2018, Alto brands itself as "the first employee-based, on-demand ride-share company." Employees receive salaries and benefits, each company-owned car is branded with the Alto logo (so riders can be sure they're stepping into the right vehicle), and cloud-based cameras capture both interior and exterior videos of the ride.

The company offers ride memberships and also shops, purchases, and delivers from local brands directly to consumers with same-day delivery available.

For safety during the pandemic, all Alto drivers wear masks and gloves during every trip and each Alto vehicle is fitted with a HEPA cabin air filter which removes 99.9 percent of airborne particles, the company claims. Car interiors are also treated with PermaSafe, an EPA-registered hospital-grade sanitizing mist that is said to kill pathogens like COVID-19.

"Alto is thrilled to announce our expansion plans to Houston and offer the same clean, safe ride-share experience that's revolutionizing the industry to this new market," said Will Coleman, founder and CEO of Alto. "We're confident Houston residents will find Alto to be unlike any other ride-share experiences they've had to date, and find comfort in Alto's leading safety and health precautions, as well as elevated rider experience."

Locals who are interested in more information and getting on the Houston launch waitlist can the official site. The Alto app is available for download on the App Store and Google Play.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 crisis management tips for Houston business leaders

houston voices

The great pandemic of 2020 has brought to the surface the issue of crisis management. Especially with nationwide business shut downs in the last eight months, many companies are on a rocky road of uncertainty. Entrepreneurs are unsure of what the future holds after seeing revenues slow or halt in some cases. Layoffs, RIFs, budget cuts, departmental downsizing; all inevitable.

Way too many startup founders aren't equipped or experienced when it comes to crisis management. "In order to keep your startup going, you have to know how to identify a crisis before it spreads like a cancer and how to make big changes and big decisions fast and often," says Gael O'Brien, the ethics coach for Entrepreneur.com.

"Any time in which the world stops functioning in a way we're used to, a deviation from the norm, that might be the biggest early sign of a crisis about to rear its head," she continued.

Admitting you have a problem

O'Brien stresses that a leader should create an easy process whereby one can identify a crisis in its infancy. The key here, she says, is to make sure to recognize a crisis before it starts to consume your company. You'll have to learn how to contain the crisis by leading the charge in rapid decision making. Many entrepreneurs simply refuse to admit there's a problem at hand. Many times, admitting there's a crisis means admitting one was wrong. It also means they may have been wrong for years.

These entrepreneurs that refuse admitting there's a crisis often do so with common refrains like "I didn't want to scare anyone" or "if I admit I was wrong this whole time I'll lose respect."

"Great leaders aren't afraid to put their company first, even if it means a blow to the ego. These leaders are not afraid to inform everyone that might be affected know there is a crisis," O'Brien explained.

"They contain the problem and prevent it from becoming unmanageable. Good leaders don't opt for a temporary Band-Aid-like fix either. They aim for a permanent solution."

Casting for a crisis management team

There are two common mistakes startup leaders make when it comes to crisis management. The first is that they can miscast a crisis management team. Meaning, they put the wrong people in decision-making roles. You want people on your crisis management team who are not going to feel they will be blamed for a crisis or for controversial decisions.

When one is afraid of being blamed for something, they are more likely to obstruct and lie so that the team's focus is diverted. "These are people that will omit objective and relevant information if it means saving their own reputation or job. You want people that put the team first," said O'Brien.

Communication during a crisis

The second common mistake startup leaders make during a crisis is that they tend to under-communicate. It becomes habitual to keep things close to the chest. To become secretive during a crisis. Managers might feel that the less people know, the less chance there is of panic. However, doing this opens your company up to wild speculation among employees. Assumptions. And these assumptions are never good.

"You have to be forthright. It's not just that people have a right to know what's going on in their own company. It's also that if you leave yourself up to speculation, people will grow frustrated and worse, scared. Scared people make crises worse," said O'Brien.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Cleantech incubator announces location in Houston, names newest partners

Greentown's moving in

After announcing its plans to expand to Houston in June, Boston-based Greentown Labs has selected its site for its cleantech startup and tech incubator.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Greater Houston Partnership announced that Greentown Houston will be opening in the Innovation District, being developed by Rice Management Co. and home to The Ion. The site is located at 4200 San Jacinto St., which was Houston's last remaining Fiesta grocery story before it closed in July.

The facility is expected to open this coming spring and will feature 40,000 square feet of prototyping lab, office, and community space that can house about 50 startups, totaling 200 to 300 employees.

"We are thrilled to announce the selection of Greentown Labs' inaugural location in partnership with RMC, the City of Houston, the Partnership, and leading global energy and climate impact-focused companies," says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, in a press release. "In order to meet the urgent challenge of climate change, we must engage the talent and assets of major ecosystems around the country. We look forward to catalyzing the Houston ecosystem's support for climatetech startups as we work together toward a sustainable future for all."

Emily Reichert is the CEO of Greentown Labs. Photo courtesy of Greentown Labs

Greentown Labs launched in 2011 as community of climatetech and cleantech innovators bringing together startups, corporates, investors, policymakers, and more to focus on scaling climate solutions. Greentown Labs' first location is 100,000 square feet and located just outside of Boston in Somerville, Massachusetts. Currently, it's home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 280 startups since the incubator's founding. According to the release, these startups have created more than 6,500 jobs and raised over $850 million in funding

"We are so pleased that Greentown Houston will locate in the heart of the Innovation District, where they will seamlessly integrate into the region's robust energy innovation ecosystem of major corporate energy R&D centers, corporate venture arms, VC-backed energy startups, and other startup development organizations supporting energy technology," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer at the Greater Houston Partnership, in the release. "Houston truly is the hub of the global energy industry, and Greentown Houston will ensure we continue to attract the next generation of energy leaders who will create and scale innovations that will change the world."

Greentown Houston, which previously announced several founding partners in June, has just named new partners, including: RMC, Microsoft, Saint-Gobain, and Direct Energy. According to the release, Greentown Houston is also looking for Grand Opening Partners. Naturgy and and FCC Environmental Services (FCC) are the first to join on as a grand opening partners, and startups and prospective partners can reach out for more information via this form.

Reichert previously told InnovationMap that it was looking for an existing industrial-type building that could be retrofitted to meet the needs of industrial startups that need lab space. She also said that this approach is very similar to how they opened their first location.

Rice Management Company is developing the Innovation District in the center of Houston. Screenshot via ionhouston.com

The new location will be in the 16-acre Innovation District that's being developed by RMC, which will be anchored by The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot hub that is being renovated from the former Sears building.

"What we love about Greentown Labs as much as its commitment to helping Houston become a leader in energy transition and climate change action is its proven track record of job creation through the support of local visionaries and entrepreneurs," says Ryan LeVasseur, managing director of Direct Real Estate at RMC, in the release. "Greentown Houston, like The Ion, is a great catalyst for growing the Innovation District and expanding economic opportunities for all Houstonians. We're thrilled Greentown Labs selected Houston for its first expansion and are honored it will be such a big part of the Innovation District moving forward."

Acquiring the new Greentown location is a big win for the mayor, who released the city's Climate Action Plan earlier this year. The plan lays out a goal to make Houston carbon neutral by 2050.

"We are proud to welcome Greentown Labs to Houston, and we are excited about the new possibilities this expansion will bring to our City's growing innovation ecosystem," says Turner in the release. "Organizations and partners like Greentown Labs will play a vital role in helping our City meet the goals outlined in the Climate Action Plan and will put us on the right track for becoming a leader in the global energy transition. The City of Houston looks forward to witnessing the innovation, growth, and prosperity Greentown Labs will bring to the Energy Capital of the World."

Greentown Labs will host a celebratory networking event on September 24 at 4 p.m. Registration for the EnergyBar is open here.