Corporate Eye

Whoever Gets Their Positioning Right Wins a Prize: Survival (And Even Profit)

I recently invited Karen Jones from BioEngagement to write a guest post for us about how best to position new technologies. Over to you, Karen!

Let’s say you have a new technology platform to sell. Should you describe it as “new and never been done before”, or “just like those other guys, but better”?

Positioning: Create a New Market or Segment an Existing One?

Positioning your new technology can make the difference between success and failure, case in point: Research in Motion (RIM) and TiVo, as described in this excellent post by Steve Blank.

In 1997, RIM decided to describe their new handheld communication device as an “interactive pager”, even though it was actually the first wireless email device, because pagers were something that people could understand at the time and therefore it needed very little explanation. There was a ready market there for the taking and RIM succeeded. The device is known as the Blackberry. RIM sales were $15 billion in 2010. In the last ten years they’ve made over $9 billion in profit.

TiVo, on the other hand, hated the idea of describing their technology as just a better VCR and instead carved out an entirely new market of digital video recorders, which took ten years of marketing slog and a loss of $400 million to achieve $240 million in sales in 2010.

So, “new and unprecedented” is not always better.

Technology Innovations: Are They ALWAYS For a New Market?

I mention this because in my field of life science, heralding a new technology as “unique and unprecedented” appears to be the default. Perhaps if the inventors and their shareholders took the guts to swallow their pride and describe their offerings in terms more familiar to their customer base, we would see some improvement in terms of time to adoption and profitability.

Take 23andme, for instance. This cleverly branded startup gained $22M in Series C funding in September this year (a feat in itself) and aims to help people understand what their genes mean by indexing them and highlighting significant findings. Naturally, it didn’t hurt that they got a leg up from Google, but my point here is that instead of harping on about their ground-breaking genome-scanning technology, their home page distills their direct-to-consumer offering as a simple saliva test. Something that everyone can understand.

Pay-As-You-Go Chemistry?

Newly launched Molplex follows a similar approach, on a fraction of the budget. Under the hood it contains unique virtual chemistry screening technology that allows researchers to identify potential new pharmaceutical compounds or compound fragments that bind to new therapeutic targets and to assess their pharmacokinetic and other critical properties without ever having to leave the desk. On its website it simply calls it “discovery on demand” and lets the researcher walk through its product offerings as if he or she was about to order a new chemical compound from a catalog. We’ll see if this works, but I’m pleased that their complex semantic web-based technology isn’t the first thing you read about when you land on their site.

A Better Antibody Generation Technology

Highly interesting biotech start-up Kymab enters the market with its next generation antibody technology which involves transferring a huge chunk of human genome sequence into a mouse in order to fully replicate the complete diversity of the human immune response. If they get it right, they will be able to tackle the most intractable of human immune diseases and attract technology licensing deals with pharmaceutical giants as well as develop their own antibody therapies. It’s an extension of existing technology which they are calling the “7th generation antibody technology” – i.e. same as the other guys but better. I hope they succeed.

A New Market Requires Education Before Adoption: Is There Time?

There are many life science companies that gone down the route of developing a new market before selling their wares. I worked in the genomics industry before the “biotech bust” and saw huge promise squandered, as it took too long to educate the market and encourage early adoption by the pharmaceutical industry that isn’t known for taking technological risks. Huge databases of human genetic variants known as SNPs, created before anyone had a chance to understand what they might be used for; gene microchips that could be used to identify the differences between disease and normal tissue, yet the market couldn’t recognise a common application. Failures of positioning.

So the next time that you see a new technology that puts its cleverness ahead of a simple and recognizable application, remember the Blackberry and the TiVo and reconsider whether it really is that clever.

Thanks Karen!

Dr Karen Jones is the founder of BioEngagement Ltd, helping lifescience companies to commercialise their innovations through smart business development, marketing and communication strategies. She holds a PhD from UCL, post-doctorate education at Harvard Medical School and over 12 years’ experience in sales and marketing of global life science companies. Follow Karen at @bioengagement.

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