Bill Billotte has a message for inventors: stop chasing funding, and start engaging with standards. The director of ASTM International’s Exo Technology Centre of Excellence is on a mission. He wants to get the scientists and engineers working on cutting edge technologies involved in developing everything from terminology to training, as a way of getting more great ideas out of laboratories and into the marketplace.
A career at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), one of the US’ oldest physical science laboratories, gave Billotte a ringside seat to observe the commercial journey of exciting and transformative technologies, including plenty that didn’t make it into the hands of consumers.
“Everybody talks about the valley of death between research and prototype development, and getting a commercial product on the market. Often developers will say, ‘if only I had this amount of money, it wouldn’t be a problem for me to get my invention to market’. But what I’ve seen is that throwing money at something isn’t necessarily going to turn it into a wonderful commercial product.”
Funding, for Billotte, can end up being a crutch that stops innovators doing the things that could help them most in crossing the ‘valley of death’. By contrast, standards development can not only create an effective bridge across the valley, but map the landscape – particularly when it comes to emerging technologies.
“Standards help to shape a marketplace, with reliable, safe products being traded on a fair and equal footing around the world. They also connect your technology with a global community of users, manufacturers and stakeholders.”
This network of connections can lower multiple barriers to success.
Billotte’s standards ‘bridge’ rests on four pillars: relevance, trust, safety and reliability, each underpinning a vital section of the commercialization journey.
Relevance: work bottom-up to build value
One of the biggest challenges for inventors is to get into the shoes of their potential users. Products and software are built to be easy for developers to modify or manage – that doesn’t always translate to a great user experience. When users’ perspectives are missing, good technologies can end up being useless.
“I worked a lot with detector technologies. And often you would find a developer had this great device that worked perfectly, but just not in the environment where people are going to use it. Because let’s say you can’t read the screen outside, and these users wear gloves when they’re working around this stuff and none of the dials and buttons you’ve designed work with gloves.”
That level of relevance is elusive for many developers, but inherent to standards – which are driven from the bottom-up through volunteer efforts. It has to be worth their time for academics, users, manufacturers, and others to research, write, and ballot the standards – creating an effective filter for technologies that have real value.
Trust: let go of your baby
The objectivity that the standards community brings to examining a technology is also instrumental in most successful development.
“As an inventor, your product is your baby. It looks great to you, but there’s a natural bias there which gets in the way of consumer trust – and nobody who works for you is going to tell you your baby is ugly.”
Being too close to what you’re doing can make it difficult to provide clear, digestible and credible information to users. Moreover, bias can creep into test methods, which may mask less favourable information about a product’s capabilities.
“Standardized test methods give you a huge advantage. By using labs certified to perform standardized test methods, researchers can show customers unbiased information and ‘apples to apples’ comparisons of how their product performs, and where it’s outperforming minimum standards, or it’s got additional functionality.”
Safety: don’t let an accident kill your technology
For most people, safety is the whole point of standards. There are obvious reasons why any developer will want to ensure their product is safe before it goes to market, but in emerging technology, there’s a wider interest in establishing requirements across the industry.
“I work in the exo-skeleton area and so all these technologies are on a person. One of the fears is that we’ll get a bad product out there and somebody gets hurt in it horribly. That could end up impacting every manufacturer across the marketplace.”
By being part of writing safety standards, designing test methods, or creating guidance on how to use products safely and mitigate any potential hazards, developers can not only ensure the integrity of their own device, but safeguard confidence in the technology.
Reliability: grow your market by reducing variability
Early adopters will often share inventors’ excitement and passion for a product. They are more accepting of risks and setbacks, and variation in performance. But reaching a wider consumer base means eliminating these unknowns.
“If I buy or lease something, I want it to work every time and I want to know how well it’s going to work for me. If I buy a vehicle, how long is it going to last me? And how should I take care of it so it performs the way you say it’s going to?”
“To move from early adopters and champions to mass adoption, the reliability of the company is just as important as the product. Buyers want to know that you can actually produce the quantity they need with the highest possible quality and provide the necessary product support. They will ask: Is your product scalable for mass production and delivery? Will your company be around three years from now? Can you provide training? How often do you update the models and is this on a scheduled timetable? Where can I get parts or service? Can I repair it myself? Can I upgrade it or trade it in for future models? What are the expendable supplies I need to operate and maintain it? Do you have technical support available when I need it?”
Thus, for Billotte, the final piece of the commercialization puzzle – particularly for emerging technologies – is reliability. Clear practices and guidance on performance, maintenance and when to dispose of or upgrade a product lay the groundwork for growth and market penetration.
Chicken and egg
Given all the benefits, why haven’t more emerging technology developers been engaged in standards? Billotte explains that until now, standards and emerging tech have faced a tricky chicken-and-egg scenario:
“You need some level of understanding of a technology in order to write or develop standards. When standards development is reactionary to emerging technologies there’s a lag between innovation and establishment of a trusted marketplace.”
ASTM is leading the way for SDOs to eliminate this lag by integrating research into standards development. By funding and collaborating on research that leads to standards for emerging technologies, Centers of Excellence like Billotte’s can rapidly accelerate the commercialization of new technologies like exoskeletons and advanced manufacturing.
“We’re flipping perceptions of standards development on their head. The Exo Technology Center of Excellence has been a catalyst driving forward R&D, standards, training and partnerships, and forging global connections which are strengthening the industry.”
“Whether you want your technology to disrupt a current market or establish a new market, standards provide a path to achieve your goals.”
As many other areas of emerging technology wake up to the potential benefits of this approach, Billotte and his ASTM colleagues may find fertile ground for their platform.