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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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.