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Product Development for the Big, Bold, and Ambitious
Got any ideas for innovations that could unlock a potentially huge and lucrative market? A small company in Massachusetts works with major players to bring transformative products to the commercial marketplace.
Helping some of the world’s best known companies create products that generate outsize impacts in their respective fields, or even beyond, isn’t bad work if you can get it. That’s exactly what the scientists and engineers at Nano Terra, a small product development company in Cambridge, Mass., do when they go about their daily business.
Nano Terra describes itself as an innovation accelerator, one that contributes expertise in fields like surface science, printing and patterning, and advanced materials to help companies develop and commercialize transformational products. The company began in 2006, licensing a large technology portfolio from the George Whitesides laboratory at Harvard University. Today, it employs about 30 at its own lab in Cambridge, where its scientists and engineers work on ambitious co-development programs with some of the world’s biggest players in the aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, electronics, and consumer goods industries, among many others. Nano Terra says that it has worked on commercial co-development programs with more than 30 companies, including 3M, Boeing, Honeywell, Merck KGaA, Infineum, Ahlstrom, and Pentair.
Nano Terra Managing Director Brian Mayers, who had previously worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard in the labs of Nano Terra co-founder, Professor George Whitesides, was the first scientist in the door when Nano Terra started nearly ten years ago.
“We develop new and innovative products, largely through co- development with our commercial partners,” said Mayers in a recent phone interview. “We are built as a co-development company, to bring new technologies from proof-of-concept to prototype to product. We’re very technologically deep, with world-class expertise in advanced materials, surface science, and in materials from the macro scale down to the molecular scale, and we apply that expertise to do product-focused innovation.
“We leverage the capabilities that we have in house, and we pull in technologies as needed from university or corporate partners,” Mayers continued. “But what really differentiates us is our ability to take those technologies and put them into real prototypes and into real products. It’s technology that is applied. We’re very much a heavy technology company, but where the rubber meets the road, we can actually create prototypes and products that lead to things that you can make in a manufacturing-relevant way.”
In addition to advanced materials and surface science, Nano Terra’s strengths include printing and patterning; chemistry and polymers; engineering and modeling, and rapid prototyping. Nano Terra has worked on a broad range of new technologies, including designing new classes of molecules; formulating advanced polymers, gels and adhesives; creating encapsulated and coated particles, both nanoscale and microscale; developing advanced sensor concepts; printing and patterning at high resolutions onto flat, flexible, and curved substrates; and designing and engineering new product concepts.
“Our capabilities either enhance existing or create entirely new products in a broad range of areas,” the company states on its website (www.nanoterra.com). These areas are reported to include smart materials and surfaces; flexible electronics, such as displays and electronic packaging; energy, including fuel cells, batteries, and solar power; sensors; consumer goods; and industrial products and processes.
Nano Terra received a 2014 Boeing Performance Excellence Award from The Boeing Company, in recognition of superior performance and having maintained a Silver composite performance rating for each month of the 12-month performance period, from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014.
“We’ve been working with Boeing for at least as long as I’ve been here—six years—on a variety of programs, and we consider Boeing to be a very good partner, a great company to work with,” Nano Terra Vice President of Business Development Mike Fuerstman told D2P in an interview. “We were very proud to get that kind of award because it gives another point of validation for the partnership model that Nano Terra was built on.”
Mike Fuerstman joined Brian Mayers recently in speaking with Design-2-Part Magazine about the company’s work in co-developing innovative products. Following are edited excerpts of our conversation.
D2P: How is Nano Terra able to help accelerate the innovation process?
Brian Mayers: There are three key ways. First, we are flexible, nimble, and we work very quickly. So for a lot of the companies we work with, particularly the larger companies, where it may take them a month to get a chemical in the door, in terms of checking off all the boxes required, we can produce samples, create a prototype, and get the thing back to them in the same time it takes them to get that chemical in the building. So we work quickly.
The second is that we’re able to leverage the work we do across a number of industries to help get to an answer more quickly, or bring in a new set of technologies that they may not have seen, or may not have access to.
And then the third way is that we really align our objectives with creating products for our customers. And our business model incentivizes us to complete the projects quickly and get those products to market. We’ve actually brought products to market from blackboard to delivery in less than 18 months.
D2P: You work with companies on developing what are called transformational products. What are companies typically trying to accomplish with that type of product?
Mike Fuerstman: Generally, when we engage with a potential partner, we try to get them to think about the kinds of innovations that can really move the needle for their business in a significant way. Oftentimes, while many companies try to look towards that kind of objective, the bulk of their R&D efforts are focused on the sort of everyday blocking and tackling that they have to do in order to meet their customers’ immediate-term needs. Those efforts are not really transformational, though; they’re continuing the business along the same path. Companies certainly do need to put resources towards addressing their customers’ immediate-term needs, but they can lose sight of what’s happening two steps down the road. So we talk with our partners about what can be done to really provide a transformational innovation and create a new product line that enables significant new revenue streams, and how Nano Terra can play a role in developing those technologies with those companies.
D2P: The process of integrating lab-developed technologies into new products can be very challenging. What gave Nano Terra’s founding team reason to believe that its technology expertise could be successfully applied to product development in the commercial realm?
Brian Mayers: For one, we had a phenomenal founding team, led by Harvard University Professor, George Whitesides, who’s not only successful in his academic career, but has also founded a number of companies that have been very successful in the market—including Genzyme, Theravance, Geltex, and others—with a market cap over $20 billion. He and our other founders brought significant expertise in technology and business development that enabled us to have confidence that we could leverage our capabilities to put together a successful company.
D2P: If you were to summarize some specific benefits a manufacturer might get through collaboration, such as rapid product development or innovation, what would you say?
Brian Mayers: In the simplest form, it’s seeing beyond the next quarter, beyond just supporting existing products. Often, it takes hiring an outsider to do that, so a company can go after some of the bigger fish, but not lose what’s currently in the pan. Working with a company like Nano Terra that solves problems across a range of industries allows our partners to exploit technologies from other industries that they may not have otherwise known about.
Mike Fuerstman: There’s a bit of pattern recognition that helps Nano Terra to solve other companies’ challenges in a more successful way. Nano Terra’s partner list is extremely diverse. We’ve worked with companies in the aerospace business, to consumer goods, water treatment, animal care products, chemicals, food, analytical devices.
Brian Mayers: And that’s just the work we do with commercial partners. About a third of our business is with the U.S. Government. We have programs with the DoE, DoD, NIH, so we can apply those technologies to cross-pollinate into our work in creating products for our commercial customers.
Mike Fuerstman: From what I’ve seen, if you’re a company that’s focusing on a specific set of industries, or even if you’re a bigger conglomerate that’s all over the map, often times, you still don’t see the connections between some of those industries and some of the technologies that are used to solve challenges in different industries. So, the fact that we’ve seen quite a bit—and quite broadly—enables us, in many cases, to say, “Oh, I think we have something here,” or “We’ve seen this or we’ve tried that, and that could slide in here, and won’t solve the problem directly, but will get us quite far down the path and enable us to come up with some really great ideas.”
Ideally, conglomerates should be able to leverage their technologies across business units. I was having lunch with a VP level guy we worked with at one of our partners. He’s at a large conglomerate, a company with many different operating units. And he was, for a long time, in one particular division that focused on one industry. And then he got moved over to lead a very different business unit with very different customer sets and very different technical challenges. They were trying to tackle a particularly problematic engineering challenge, and he said, “I’ve seen this before. We have a technology that we developed on the other side of the business that could be really useful here,” and he was able to bring it over.
The problem is that those kinds of things don’t happen all the time in these large companies, and usually only when people move from one business to another. So Nano Terra can help to bring some of those technical solutions across industries. And for some of our smaller-sized customers, Nano Terra is often one of the only viable ways they have of getting that kind of broad view.
And then there’s a third benefit to our partners—this idea of flexible access to our expertise. We have a team of experts in several functional areas that many of the partners we work with either don’t have in house, or have deployed already against near-term technology development needs. And so bringing in and staffing up this expertise is not really feasible, certainly not on a rapid time scale.
D2P: You mentioned the ability to problem solve across industries by taking technologies from one industry and applying them to another. Does this make for a lot of unanticipated solutions?
Brian Mayers: Without a doubt.
Mike Fuerstman: Yes, it’s a really fun thing to see, actually. Since I head up business development, I don’t manage any of the science programs directly, but I check in to see how things are going. It’s always amazing, the ebb and flow of innovation and the surprising things that come out of it.
D2P: Can you explain the process of how Nano Terra engages with a customer, and what this collaborative process actually entails as you go forward?
Mike Fuerstman: There’s never one way that the process goes every time, but we do, generally, have a way of approaching it. When we talk with a company about who we are, we talk a little bit about the background of the company and our expertise to give them a frame of reference, but we almost always start the conversation with the question “What kind of innovation would create value for your company, in your industry?”
We try not to focus on the specific technologies that we currently have. We think about the expertise that we have, but we want to focus on the product. What kind of product will create value, and then how do we develop it?
And so we sit with our partners and come up with a list of potential opportunities for new products or new features for existing products. These ideas can come from many different places. We do some brainstorming here, especially if it’s an industry that we’re familiar with. Or if the potential partner makes products that we’re consumers of, we’ll sit around and have a discussion around what kinds of innovations would we love to see be developed. And our partners will also have quite a bit of market intelligence work that they’ve done to come up with a list of things that are interesting as well.
We also have brainstorming discussions between teams at Nano Terra and our partner, typically under confidentiality agreements. And then we generate a big list of opportunities, with anywhere from a few items to dozens. We then try to dive deeper into those items from a technical standpoint, and also from a value standpoint. So we challenge the partners to say, really, how can this create value for you? Is this something that’s going to reduce the cost of goods by a half a percent, or a tenth of a percent, and it’s not really a huge opportunity, or is it something that’s going to open up a new hundred million dollar ($100 million) market for you?
Once we look at that from a value standpoint, we look at it from a technical fit standpoint. Do we have the skills to do it? Do we have some compelling ideas that we’d like to try that we think are worth going at? We also think about technical risk, so we’re prioritizing these challenges or opportunities based on potential value, technical fit, technical risk, and we also think about what kind of resources would be required to address those opportunities.
And once we’ve got this list prioritized, we can figure out with our partners which projects make the most sense to work on. Many of the companies we talk to have no shortage of creative ideas if they look in the right places, and then it’s just a matter of lining them up in a way that really unlocks what the valuable innovations would be.
D2P: Are Nano Terra’s capabilities more relevant to any particular product categories, or do they have broad application across industries?
Brian Mayers: It’s pretty broad. Most industries can benefit from advanced materials or surface engineering. As Mike said, we’ve worked with leading players in a number of industries—aerospace, automotive, medical devices, consumer goods, agriculture, chemicals, oil and gas, packaging, food, electronic materials, and so forth. And add to that the list of things we’ve done in our government work, with entities like the NIH, DoE, and DoD, and you get a sense for the really broad spectrum of areas that we’re involved in.
It’s hard to be everything to everyone, but if you pull it back to what our core capabilities are, and this idea of materials science, surface engineering, and patterning, it’s actually surprising how applicable that is to many of these companies that create things. Anyone who’s in the business of creating a product is using a material, and that material has an interface with the world, which is its surface. And so the tools that we have, and the expertise that we have, some of which we’ve pulled from Harvard, from the Whitesides Lab, some of which we’ve developed ourselves, really allow us to control those materials and their surfaces, and get to groundbreaking new products.
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