Why You Shouldn’t Fear the Valley of Death

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“Innovation Insight” is a blog series written by SRC’s President Emeritus Dr. Laurier Schramm, which aims to shed light on the importance of innovation in driving economic, societal and environmental growth.

Discussions of how innovation actually gets done inevitably lead to discussions about the “Valley of Death.”

So what is the Valley of Death?

The Valley of Death is the realm where the technical, financial, and market risks can be the greatest. It therefore encompasses not only some of the most difficult technical challenges, but also the greatest difficulties in securing the financial support to do the necessary work.

valley of death

The process of innovation is not linear, but just for now let’s pretend that it is linear. Imagine a pathway along which discovery science leads to new discoveries and understandings, and engineering research leads to practical new principles and processes. Now imagine that someone comes up with an idea that could use such advances to create a new technology that could in turn be developed into a practical product or service that others might be willing to buy.

Every one of the steps described so far is expensive, time consuming and has great potential for failure, so this process is inherently very risky. The problem is not with any one of the steps but with the need to have enough of each of them, to be able to find the right ones, to be able to link a series together (in just the right way) to accomplish the early steps of the innovation process.

But it’s worse than that. Great ideas backed by great science, great engineering and great market opportunities are not nearly enough. Even with all of those things in-hand, and after the new technology has been demonstrated “in principle” at “laboratory scale,” the process is not yet complete. The new technology still has to be further developed, scaled-up, demonstrated at a practical scale, and often further developed again in order to finally be workable and practical at commercial scale; and it still has to be deployed and found to be practical and effective by a first customer and generally several others; and it has to genuinely meet a real market need in order for it to be commercially successful.

Welcome to the “Valley of Death.”

This is where most potential innovations fail, where most investors become faint-hearted, and where most product or service developers give up. But what are required are people that do not give up. Because it is out of the Valley of Death that “creative disruption” (market changing) innovations emerge, and these are the big contributors to innovation and economic health and growth.

This is the realm of the research and technology organizations (RTOs).

Have you faced the Valley of Death and survived? What was the most important lesson you learned?

Further reading: “A Valley of Death in the Innovation Sequence,” Ford, G.S., Koutsky, T.M., Spiwak, L.J., Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, Washington, Sept. 2007, 43pp.