Real-world solutions to the Valley of Death

The Valley of Death cover image
Over the course of the Bridging the Valley series, we’ve dissected the many challenges that prevent promising technologies from evolving beyond proof-of-concept in the lab into functioning products. In this final article, instead of finding fixes to the existing system, we look at alternative approaches, each of which addresses some of the issues with the current technology development system that we’ve discussed in previous articles:

  • Inconsistent supply of researchers who want to start a company in academia
  • Difficulty of access to industry experience and acumen
  • Founder professional networks that are less tailored to entrepreneurship
  • Financial backing that doesn’t meet the needs of academic startups

Drawing inspiration from the pharmaceutical development process

The pharmaceutical industry has developed a robust framework that addresses many of the issues encountered in hardware development. In both approaches, basic scientific discovery and proof-of-concept are carried out in academic labs. But once a basic level of validation is achieved and the intellectual property is patented, the approach shifts dramatically.
A visual example of the pharmaceutical development process

The patent for new pharmaceutical and the early-stage preclinical research data is pitched to VC firms. If a VC is interested, it forms a separate company around the intellectual property to continue development.  The original inventors often remain as consultants rather than leaving academia. This new company gathers the necessary data to prove to regulatory bodies that the new medicine is safe and effective, and validates production manufacturing methods. Once the medicine is de-risked, it’s typically acquired by a large, established pharmaceutical firm, which finishes development and handles production and distribution.

There are impactful benefits of this approach to development:

  • Inventors can continue a more stable career in academia without founding companies.
  • The startup is led by individuals who are experienced in building companies and already have well-established business intuition and a strong network.
  • The well-documented and rigorous development process required by regulatory bodies makes costs and timelines easier to predict, reducing the risks associated with fundraising.

While directly transplanting this model to hardware development presents challenges due to fundamental differences between the sectors, sharing aspects of this approach makes alternative systems of hardware technology development more effective.

Existing alternative approaches applied to hardware

Let’s take a look at three examples from different sectors and consider how their approaches can be applied to hardware. 

Mt. Sinai Biodesign Lab

The Mt. Sinai Biodesign Lab transitions new medical technologies emerging from Mt. Sinai research to industry. Here, researchers are guided through creating functional, high-fidelity prototypes that act as a bridge between research and real-world products, sometimes even facilitating low-volume production runs. Experienced entrepreneurs are involved during this process, and may decide to build a new company to continue developing a technology. The program process gives structure, guidance, and development resources to inventors as they transition the technology into product, and puts experienced entrepreneurs at the helm of the new companies, which navigates around many of the traditional system’s pitfalls.

FedTech Startup Studios

The FedTech Startup Studios program identifies technologies being researched in government, academic, and corporate laboratories that hold promise for commercial productization, and matches them with vetted aspiring entrepreneurs. The original inventors of the technology have the option to join the startup or act as consultants for it, and the entrepreneurs receive guidance and relevant network introductions throughout the program. Similar to the Mt Sinai approach, this program enables new technology to be productized without requiring researcher commitment to a startup, and is additionally very scalable.  


TechLink helps existing small US businesses find useful or applicable technologies being developed by the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs research laboratories.They act as an intermediary and guide for both parties during the licensing and incorporation of new technologies from the labs into the products of small businesses. It’s a fantastic approach that enables small businesses to advance their products or product offerings by taking advantage of the fruits of government research. 

Moving forward

In the eight preceding articles of this Bridging the Valley series, we dove into the various causes of the Valley of Death and discussed both potential and real solutions. At this point, we’ve covered all the material to paint a representative picture of the current issues with technology development.

With this last post, the Bridging the Valley series comes to a close. I encourage all of you not only to reflect on the insights we’ve discussed throughout the series, but to actively participate in shaping the future landscape of hardware technology development. Join discussions, share information, try out new ideas, and make connections across the industry/academia lines to forge connections that will lead out of the Valley of Death into a future where innovative technologies reach their full market potential. Thank you for joining me for this journey!


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Bridging the Valley
Mike Lo

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