Guide to market-fit for new material or technology

Based on our experiences, we guide you through the six steps to turn new materials or technologies into first invoices. That experience grew when I joined a corporate startup in the paper industry (Symbio by Sappi).

The idea was to launch plastic materials that were forest-based. At the time, our team had no market knowledge, no relevant network established in the marketplace, and no direct clients that used plastic materials.

Through trial and error, we developed a method to find clients for the material. We translated our Lean startup knowledge to the context of industrial commodity  plastics. Today, it has garnered our efforts considerable success.

How it happened:

1. Define the characteristics of your material or technology

To make your new development desirable to customers or clients, you will need to make it stand apart. You need to list the key differentiators of your material.

Key differentiators we had in mind for our forest-based plastic are based on both processing methods (injection molding, extrusion, cutting, etc.) and the actual materials (PP, PE, ABS, MDF, etc.). More concrete: less waste during production, lower carbon footprint, better scratch resistance, lighter, acoustic properties of wood, etc.

You will need to proof your efforts by making a prototype. It lets people see and get a better idea of what you are trying to promote. A physical representation makes a difference when trying to gain credibility in a new market.

We paid an injection molder to injectionmould an existing automotive part with our material. We had no intention to sell this prototype or use it in a real car.  We just needed something to show. “Fake it until you make it” became our motto. 

2. Brainstorm specific applications

Now that you have the material or technology, the next step is to brainstorm ways in which it can be used.

Tip: use a technique called ‘hybrid brainstorming’.  All team members brainstorm alone first and then share it with the group. The advantage: everyone focuses on their own ideas rather than trying competing ideas at the same time. 

In our case: speakers, room separators, cars, floors, and the like.

3. Base your first selection on market viability, technical feasibility and material adoption

It helps if the market that you choose is a new and growing. This might augment the possibilities for the material or technology.

Also, you’ll have to weigh the adoption speed of new materials for the market that you have chosen. For example, the automotive industry has a longer adoption time than gardening tools. A lead time that is too long will hamper your ability to proof market-fit. It takes too much time to learn from your trial-and-error way of working.

Also, what you have needs to be feasible for the chosen marketplace. SpaceX won’t use a material that melts at 200°C for its newest rocket. So, do enough research to know that what you have is both practical and desirable in the chosen industry.

4. Contact your prospects (smoke test)

Choose 5-10 producers for each application that you envision for your material or technology. Then contact the decision-makers with a straightforward five-sentence message that will elicit their interest.

Tip: LinkedIn in-mails proved to be most effective for us.

Mention the potential for the chosen application and ask for a second opinion of an expert in that company. This is an honest, straightforward way of getting your foot in the door while avoiding the perception of a hard sell.

Tip: “Do you know an expert in your company?” works better than “Give me your opinion, now!” Aim for either flattering someones ego or an introduction to one of his or her colleagues.

5. Arrange a call for expertise and make it a problem interview

You’ll want to arrange a call with the expert in the company if at all possible. If the company is open to the call, then they have already validated your believe about the potential. Time investment equals money in B2B.

Also, ask if they are currently having issues with the material or technology that they are using. This will provide you with some insights into key differentiators for your new development. At the end of the call, try to arrange a face-to-face meeting so that you can set up a trial for what you have to offer. A formal demonstration just may be the ticket needed to your first invoice.

E.g. Symbio: Speaker manufacturers use MDF for the acoustics, but lack design freedom. We didn’t know before calling speaker companies.

6. Specify USP and add possible applications

When relevance for one application is validated, check if the material you replace is also used in other applications. If so, add the application to your potential markets and go through these same 6 steps again. History has shown that many new materials and technologies only took off when applied for another use than first intended.

Remember that when you complete the process for one application, the sales of your material or technology may still take time to take off. This is because many potential buyers will be hesitant to try something new for fear of the unknown. Yet, once you convince one company to sign, others will start lining up to take advantage of it as well. Often small companies.

Your goal is to sell your proof of concept first and focus on that. You can then develop or tailor it to new applications at a later time once validated.

Read the interview with Jacob Hartstra, lead of the corporate startup at Sappi, to gain insight on how he felt about our collaboration.


I’m Arne Van Balen, Innovation Consultant @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in Board of Innovation’s DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to their mission by sharing this article.

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