The Technology Readiness Level
Timing is important in innovation. When we develop new ideas, we need to know when they are ready for the world. There are a couple of tools that can help us with this.
The first is the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) – a tool developed by NASA to evaluate technologies that they could use in their various programs. NASA developed this tool for a couple of reasons. One was that as the agency grew in size, their network of suppliers and collaborators became enormous. The sheer number of new technologies that were being worked on was also enormous – and it was challenging to know when these ideas were ready to be integrated into NASA’s ongoing programs.
The second issue was that they were being approached a lot by people that had a great idea for the space program, but nothing more than the idea itself. NASA needed a way to show them that the ideas needed a lot more work before tehy ready to go.
So they developed the TRL. It looks like this:
The TRL is used to address those two issues: to evaluate when a technology is ready to for use in flight, and to guide inventors and researchers in how prove to that their idea is useable.
Recently, I’ve run across several organisations that are using their own versions of the TRL to evaluate their research efforts. One of them applies this to their own internal R&D group. When new ideas arise in the business, the R&D team works on developing them, up until they reach about TRL6. It is at this point that they try to integrate the new ideas into the core business.
Another public research organisation that I work with does a similar thing. The only difference is that when they reach TRL6, they start looking for a commercial partner to help them bring the idea into the market.
The TRL is a great tool to help you develop your new technologies and eventually get them out into the world.
But what are technologies, exactly?
I discovered there was a great confusion about what “technology” meant. I wound up realizing that three different definitions were simultaneously needed. One is that individual technologies are just means to purposes, things like MRI machines or oil refining. Then there are bodies of technology, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and electronics. And then there’s technology as a whole, where we say a culture possesses a certain collective we can call its technology. I began to realize that each one of those moves forward in time in a different way. The means to purposes are like individual species, the bodies of technology are like local ecosystems, and the whole collective is like the biosphere.
I think a lot of other researchers have gotten into trouble because they didn’t stop to make those distinctions. There’s a big difference between radio engineering and a radio receiver. Both are “technologies,” but they are not the same types of thing at all.
This is actually pretty interesting. We tend to think of “technology” as stuff – like iPhones, MRI machines, and cars. But Arthur talks about technology as also being a body of knowledge. This broadens the definition considerably. If a technology is knowledge about how to achieve useful ends, then management is a technology. A business model would be a technology – basically, useful ideas are technologies.
This means that the idea of the TRL can be used more broadly too.
The Investment Readiness Level
Steve Blank has done precisely that in developing a new tool that he calls the Investment Readiness Level (IRL). The IRL looks like this:
He initially started to use it to evaluate startups going through the Lean LaunchPad program. Over time, he discovered that the IRL could be modified to fit different industry business models. Here are the advantages to this that he outlines:
- The Investment Readiness Level provides a “how are we doing” set of metrics
- It also creates a common language and metrics that investors, corporate innovation groups and entrepreneurs can share
- It’s flexible enough to be modified for industry-specific business models
- It’s part of a much larger suite of tools for those who manage corporate innovation, accelerators and incubators
The IRL is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it is based on the idea that new technologies usually need new business to succeed. The Lean LaunchPad program is based on a combination of the Business Model Canvas, Blank’s Customer Development process, and Agile Engineering. The latter means that new product development is part of using the IRL process – IRL4 and IRL7 are both about the product.
Combine the Two Scales for Better Odds of Success
I think that we can use these two scales together. For many firms that are using the TRL, their interaction with the potential users of their technology comes too late. By the time they get to TRL6, the features of the technology are pretty well locked in.
This increases risk. If you are are doing basic research, you will still probably start on the TRL. But if you’re making genuinely new things, then you need to integrate the IRL early in the process.
The TRL helps you figure out if your idea will solve a technical problem. But the IRL helps you figure out if your technology addresses a real need. To succeed, you have to do both.
If you only use the TRL, the danger is that you will create a great gadget (or process, or set of ideas) that don’t address a real need. But if you only focus on the IRL, the danger is that you will identify a real need, but you can’t build the technology you need to meet it.
Great new technologies (in the broadest sense of the term) need great new business models to succeed. If you use these two tools, they will help you figure out when your great idea is ready for the world, and they will also help you make sure that the world is ready for your great new idea.