How biotech startups can innovate through embracing applied research

December 14, 2022 - 5 minutes
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By Kathleen Lee, director of the Arizona WearTech Applied Research Center

Innovation is about breaking new ground and forging new pathways to confront societal issues and solve problems. Many startup companies, especially in the biotech industries, are working towards finding solutions to some of these most complex problems. 

All solutions start as mere ideas, and many of these new ideas don’t make it through the robust processes of development, testing, and validation that startups have to face.

That is where the applied research model comes in. The Partnership for Economic Innovation has embraced this model to help biotech entrepreneurs in Arizona more quickly identify solutions to address challenges, and then bring these solutions to market. The WearTech Applied Research Center follows a specific formula in order to transform new ideas into functioning products. 

Here is how the applied research model works to help biotech startups succeed:

Identifying the right market for commercialization

Accessing the correct market for your product is a pivotal part of placing your startup in a position to thrive. According to research conducted by CB Insights, 35% of all startups fail because there is no existing market for their product. Critical analysis of the market’s demand, size, economic trends, location, saturation, and pricing information in relation to your product will determine which market is suitable for your product. 

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Be open to exploring different markets than the one you initially selected, because often there are markets that are in greater need. Ensuring that the product reaches the right audience can make or break the success of your startup. The applied research model directly assists in this process by providing the supplementary funding and resources needed to examine a variety of markets in order to determine which is the best fit for your product.

Utilizing public-private partnerships

Public-private partnerships offer advantages to all parties involved, specifically through collaborative mobilization efforts to achieve commercial and larger developmental goals. The private sector can provide the capacity and outreach that many emerging individual businesses require in order to access capital. 

Co-financing shared initiates can offer a more cost-effective way to achieve the expansion goals of a business. Additional financial support can also enable a business to enact more unique and innovative strategies that they may not have initially been able to fund, such as implementing new technology or testing the use of an emerging market. For example, the Partnership for Economic Innovation works closely with local government agencies to secure public funding, which is combined with private funding and utilized to invest in applied research.

Leveraging local educational institutions for research to prioritize the product validation process 

The product validation process is very nuanced in the biotech space and requires great attention to detail at every stage, including feasibility testing and user validation testing. Feasibility testing concerns the consideration and application of the many logistical aspects of validating your product including demand and means of manufacturing. Do you have access to the technologies and specialists necessary to build and support the product? Does the product observe laws, regulations, and industry standards?

Once you have clarified the means of engineering the product, it is time to get feedback from real potential users and implement that feedback to better ensure the functionality of your product. Both user usability and desirability are important factors to consider. The best way to receive genuine feedback is to share your product with sample users that fall under your target market population.

Support from local educational institutions alleviates some of the burden that startups endure by providing resources and expertise to expedite the product validation timeline. When educational institutions partner with local applied research centers they help early-stage companies bridge the typical investment gap, where funding may run its course before a company can fully validate its innovation technology. More universities are adapting to the demand for a concrete connection between academic institutions and entrepreneurial ventures, and one way of doing so is contributing both capital and other resources to help startups get their footing.

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Streamlining the product validation process early on builds a strong foundation for accessing funding, commercialization, and eventually sharing the product. It is essential to strategically approach the process with exceptional attention to detail. Navigating it with vigilance conserves critical time and resources therefore preventing potential barriers from developing later down the road. Product validation also provides data to present to stakeholders and potential investors in order to help the startup acquire the necessary capital.

Finding your local applied research center to help your innovation become a reality

Support from local applied research centers can catalyze success for startups. Each project taken on by applied research centers has three elements including a company that can invest at least half of the research budget, a product idea that answers a market need, and research collaboration with a university. From there, projects are guided through the research and development, prototyping, and validation process. For example, in Arizona at the WearTech Center once the product is validated, experts assist startups through the commercialization process to introduce these innovative products to market. There are similar centers and programs like this across the country. To find them, it requires a bit of research and a lot of networking, but once you’ve introduced yourself to the community, business leaders and researchers alike are eager to help new ideas become a reality.

The biotech space is rapidly evolving, but despite any market changes, building a strong foundation for your startup will ensure long-term success. My recommendation is to become familiar with the applied research processes and benefits. Through choosing the correct market, extensively completing the product validation process, and utilizing the support of private institutions and the resources offered by academic institutions your startups will have the upper hand.

Kathleen Lee is director of applied research programs for Partnership for Economic Innovation and senior vice president of regional initiatives for Greater Phoenix Economic Council.

She leads high impact projects that advance the region’s capacity for innovation and job creation. She also serves on the board of New Growth Innovation Network, an organization that works with economic development practitioners around the country to design and build inclusive growth practices.

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