When approaching prototype creation, you have options. This expert weighs in with her guidance. Photo courtesy

As you continue your journey of developing and bringing a new product to the market, you have a series of decisions to make when it comes to prototyping — whether you're going to launch a hardware or a software product, or the combination of both — you need to have a prototype made.

Before you begin, there are a number of things to consider. In an article for InnovationMap last week, I looked at major choice points and their implications that will help you navigate the process in the most efficient way.

After you successfully laid the foundation for the development process and got you CAD models ready, you arrive at the next choice. Prior to making a prototype of your invention you need to decide what type of prototype you're going to build. Whether you're making it yourself or hiring a rapid prototyping company, you need to know the purpose your prototype will fulfil because it will help to select proper methods, techniques, and materials for building. With that in mind, let's go through the types of prototypes and purposes behind building them.

Types of Prototypes

Mockup

This type is usually used as a simple representation of your product idea, to gauge physical dimensions and see its rough look. It's especially useful for making physical models of complex and large products without investing a significant amount from the start. Mockup is perfect for initial market research and various types of early testing.

Proof of concept

This type of prototype is built when you need to validate your idea and prove that it can be realized. It comes in handy when approaching potential partners and investors.

Functional prototype

This kind of prototype is also called a "looks- and works-like" model because it has both technical and visual features of the product presented. It is used for testing product's functionality, conducting consumer surveys, and fundraising campaigns.

Pre-production prototype

This is the most complex type that is made at the latest stage of product development. It's used for ergonomics, manufacturability, and material testing, as well as to minimize risks of defects during manufacturing. This is a model that manufacturers use to produce the final product.

Choosing to Partner with Prototyping Company

It's important to note that prototyping is an iterative process. It is a fusion of art and science that helps you to uncover the full potential of your product, which in turn increases its chances for market success. Therefore, you will likely go through several types of prototypes, with each kind usually requiring a few versions to achieve the parameters you set for the model.

And this process also requires help of a company that builds prototypes or of a professional product development team. You can start looking for the one after you made your first mockup or proof of concept. It is recommended because creating more complex prototypes implies the use of sophisticated equipment, sourcing of materials and components that could be too expensive or complicated to do without an established network of suppliers. Plus, skills and experience play a huge role in creating quality prototypes. Taking all three factors – equipment, experience and skills - into account, it's smart to outsource your prototyping needs to a professional company.

This article is a follow up article to my post from last week. I have also previously contributed to guest columns on the following:

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.

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

Lessons in prototyping: Choosing the right approach to product development

guest column

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.

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.

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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Deadline extended: InnovationMap, HX open nominations for new combined awards gala

calling all innovators

Update: The deadline for nominations have been extended to midnight on Sunday, October 2.

InnovationMap is back to honor local startups and innovators — and this time, we've upped the ante.

Houston Exponential and InnovationMap have teamed up to combine their annual awards and event efforts to premiere a brand new program. The Houston Innovation Awards Gala on Wednesday, November 9, at The Ion will be a comprehensive event honoring Houston founders, innovators, investors, and more. InnovationMap and HX, which was acquired earlier this year, are in the same network of ownership.

Nominations are open online until midnight October 2, and nominees will have until October 11 to complete an additional application that will be emailed to nominees directly. A group of industry experts and Houston innovation leaders will review those submissions and determine finalists and winners across 11 categories. The categories for this year's awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Hardtech Business honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond
  • B2B Software Business honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to impact the business sector
  • Green Impact Business honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, and beyond
  • Smart City Business honoring an innovative company providing a tech solution within transportation, infrastructure, data, and beyond
  • New to Hou honoring an innovative company, accelerator, or investor that has relocated its primary operations to Houston within the past three years
  • DEI Champion honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization
  • Investor of the Year honoring an individual who is leading venture capital or angel investing
  • Mentor of the Year honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an interactive voting portal during of the event
Nominees can be submitted to multiple categories.

Additionally, the awards gala will honor an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community. While you may nominate an individual for the Trailblazer Award via the online form, the judging committee will not require applications or nominations for this category and will be considering potential honorees from the ecosystem at large. If you are interested in sponsorship opportunities, please reach out to cbuckner@houstonexponential.org.

Last year, InnovationMap introduced its awards program and named 28 finalists and honored the nine winners on September 8. Click here to see more from last year's event.

Tickets for the November 9 event are available online. Early bird tickets will be $60 per person and startup founders will be able to attend for $25.

Click here to submit a nomination or see form below.


Major corporation opens hub for global decarbonization in Houston

seeing green

Management consulting giant McKinsey & Co. plans to spend $100 million over the next decade to pump up Houston’s decarbonization economy.

McKinsey says the initiative will, among other things, focus on:

  • Promoting innovations like carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and green hydrogen
  • Revamping business models for carbon-heavy companies
  • Ramping up the community of local startups involved in energy transition
  • Developing talent to work on decarbonization

As part of this program, McKinsey has set up a decarbonization hub in its Houston office, at 609 Main St.

“Decarbonization will lead to a new chapter of economic development, while also addressing a critical problem of climate change,” McKinsey partner Nikhil Ati says.

Global decarbonization efforts over the next three decades will require a $100 trillion investment, according to Utility Dive. Houston, home to 40 percent of publicly traded oil and gas companies, stands to gain a substantial share of that opportunity.

McKinsey’s Houston office has worked for several years on Houston’s energy transition initiatives. For instance, the firm helped produce a study and a whitepaper on energy transition here. The whitepaper outlines Houston’s future as the “epicenter of a global clean hydrogen hub.”

“Texas is the nation’s largest renewable energy producer, home to half of the nation’s hydrogen pipelines, and its companies have unparalleled capabilities in building and operating complex projects,” McKinsey senior partner Filipe Barbosa says. “This is Houston’s moment in time on the global stage.”

McKinsey estimates a Houston-based global hub for clean hydrogen that’s in place by 2050 could generate 180,000 jobs and create an economic impact of $100 billion.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from photonics to robotics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Brad Burke joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Collaboration has made a world of a difference for growing Houston's innovation ecosystem, according to Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"I think Houston has this culture of collaboration that I suspect that some other major cities don't have in the same way," Burke says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And while we're a big city, the entrepreneurial ecosystem feels like a small network of a lot of people who work really well together."

Burke has played a major role in the collaboration of Houston for the past 20 years leading the Rice Alliance, which coordinates many event programs and accelerators — including the Rice Business Plan Competition, energy and life science forums, the Clean Energy Accelerator, Owl Spark, Blue Launch, and more. Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics

A new partnership for Houston-based Syzygy will generate 1.2 million tons of clean hydrogen each year in South Korea by 2030. Image via Syzygy

Houston-area energy tech startup Syzygy Plasmonics is part of a new partnership that will develop a fully electric chemical reactor for production of clean hydrogen in South Korea.

The reactor will be installed in the second half of 2023 at Lotte Fine Chemical’s facilities in Ulsan, South Korea. Lotte Fine Chemical, Lotte Chemical, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas are Syzygy’s partners in this venture.

“Simply improving existing tech isn’t enough to reach the world’s decarbonization goals. Stopping climate change will require industries to reimagine what is possible,” Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best says in a news release. “Our technology expands the accepted paradigms of chemical engineering. We have demonstrated the ability to replace heat from combustion with renewable electricity in the manufacture of foundational chemicals like hydrogen.” Click here to read more.

Nicolaus Radford, CEO and founder of Nauticus Robotics

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has hit the public market. Image via LinkedIn

Fresh off its September 13 debut as a publicly traded company, Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc. is aiming for $90 million in revenue next year as it dives deeper into the ocean economy.

The stock of Nauticus now trades on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol KITT. Nauticus went public following its SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with New York City-based CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” company that went public in July 2021 through a $150 million IPO. The SPAC deal was valued at $560 million when it was announced in December.

Nauticus continues to be led by CEO Nicolaus Radford and the current executive team.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” says Radford, who founded what was known as Houston Mechatronics in 2014. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.” Click here to read more.