Using Technology Readiness Levels to Plan Small Business Product Development

Using Technology Readiness Levels to Plan Small Business Product Development

by Mitch Lairmore | February 22, 2019

Developing new products and services in today’s market can sometimes be a challenging task for a business owner. It takes more than just creating something new. Investing in research and development can help owners gain a competitive edge.

Often, owners will need to secure funding from other organizations in order to complete the product development process. Investors and/or sponsors will want to have a clear understanding of the total cost and time needed to complete the commercialization effort and an assessment of the technical risk. Entrepreneurs will be required to provide this information to these organizations in a way that is easy to digest.

These business owners not only need a new way to track their research and development process, but to also effectively communicate that process to investors.

Turn to an out of this world resource

Developed in the mid-1970s by NASA researcher Stan Sadin, the Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) method was developed in an effort to enhance communication between researchers and program managers regarding the maturity of a technology. Maturity is an indication of the cost and time needed to achieve a useable product or solution. It can also provide an indication of the technical risk associated with a particular technology.

The TRL method uses a 9-level scale to help determine the maturity of a product. Level 1 indicates basic principles have been observed and reported. The highest level, Level 9, suggests the technology is ready to be used. According to Sandia National Laboratories the scale can be further aggregated into six types of activities with some overlap:

  • Basic Technology Research (TRL 1 to TRL 2)
  • Research to Prove Feasibility (TRL 2 to TRL 4)
  • Technology Development (TRL 3 to TRL 5)
  • Technology Demonstration (TRL 5 to TRL 7)
  • System/Subsystem Development (TRL 6 to TRL 9)
  • System Test, Launch & Operations (TRL 8 to TRL9)

It can work for you, too

The TRL method offers a great deal of flexibility and is now widely used in NASA, the military and commercial organizations. Many organizations use different criteria for the assignment of TRL levels. Fortunately, the criteria used is usually well documented and publicly available. There are numerous examples of using TRL with different product application areas that can be found with a quick Internet search.

The overarching business goal of the planning process is to reach the highest TRL with the least amount of time and money. The method is a structured way to plan research and development in association with the commercialization of the technology.

The key questions a business owner should address in the planning process include:

  • How is success defined/measured for each TRL?
  • How much time is needed to reach each TRL?
  • How much money is needed to reach each TRL?
  • What organizations are involved in the activities needed to reach each TRL?

How can the TRL method help your business?

There are a couple of ways to enhance the credibility of the TRL assessment for your technology. First, base your assessment on a specific application of your technology, as technologies can often be used in multiple applications. Second, try to get an outside opinion regarding the success criteria for each TRL.

Stay above the competition by using TRL’s to plan your research and development activities and as a communication tool with potential sponsors/investors. There are resources available, such as the Florida SBDC at USF, to find out how the TRL method can help your current planning and communication process.

  • Mitch Lairmore

    Florida SBDC at USF, Tampa

    Specialty: International Trade, New Technologies, Business Planning, SBIR/STTR, Marketing

    Mitch Lairmore comes to the Florida SBDC at USF with a strong background in business development, strategic planning and market research. He has extensive experience with product development teams and small companies in the commercialization of technology. For the past eight years he has worked as a staff consultant, providing commercialization assistance to small companies in the SBIR/STTR program for a very diverse range of technology development projects sponsored by the US Navy, Department of Energy (DoE), National Science Foundation, Department of Transportation and Department of Homeland Security. Prior to that time, he formed a sole proprietor and was a subcontractor to a prime contractor for the National Institute of Health, DoE and Environmental Protection Agency. Earlier in his career, he served as a business development director at Eastman Kodak, where his responsibilities included creating strategic plans for new products, development of intellectual property licensing plans and collaboration with partners. Lairmore was a co-founder of a venture team that progressed to the development phase within the Kodak New Opportunity Development initiative. He was marketing manager for a multimillion dollar data storage product development effort and secured corporate partners and three funding rounds. In addition, he served as a board member for a portfolio company of Kodak Ventures Group that transitioned to profitability. Lairmore holds a Certified Global Business Professional certification through National Association of Small Business International Trade Educators, is a Certified LivePlan Expert Advisor, and Strategic Management Performance Systems certified. He has assisted small businesses in exporting efforts by helping them identify and develop business relationships with international partners. He also assists clients in developing credible business plans for startup or growth. He holds an MBA from the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Rochester and a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from the University of Iowa.

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