Good business optics: Critical steps to healthy startups

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Ramanujan,right, facilitating the-Investing in Photonics Panel at 2020 SPIE Photonics West

Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of the Luminate Accelerator Programme in Rochester, New York, offers four key questions to consider before launching an optics start-up 







What is your technology?

The first and most important question is, do you have a product that solves a real problem? If there isn’t a clear answer, you might have a product, but you don’t have a business. The success or failure of a start-up is not dependent on clever marketing or an excellent sales team: it rides on having a product that meets a well-defined customer need. To truly define and validate the problem, interview as many potential customers as you can, not just a handful. This will help identify whether the problem is pervasive and will yield a large enough target market. 

When Uber launched in San Francisco in 2009, it addressed people’s desire for price transparency, which stemmed from a distrust of strangers. By quoting the ride’s cost up front, Uber offered the promise of building driver-rider trust through a transparent review system. The problem was clearly defined, and visionary software engineers designed a product that solved it.

Who is your market?

Can you identify who, exactly, cares about what you’ve built? Resist the urge to make assumptions here. Put together a list of companies that you believe will want your product. This list should include those who actually make the purchasing decisions, in addition to those who will influence the decisions, such as the user of the technology.

When you are confident that you know your customer, thoroughly scan the competition. Make sure you haven’t reinvented something that’s already out there. If you’re lucky, you might even hear of someone who tried something similar and failed. 

Insight into earlier failures can make all the difference in your own success. Look to the Israeli lidar company Oryx Vision, which shut down operations in August 2019, for an example. 

They saw that the field of lidar was becoming a place for big companies and big players, and as a small company, they couldn’t justify the investments that would be needed to stay in the game until the technology took off commercially. They tried to sell the company but couldn’t. For an entrepreneur wanting to enter the lidar space, their story could be important.

Also, research your market to make sure that it can support the cost of your solution. 

If your product will cost $200 to manufacture, but your target customer is only willing to pay $50, then you need to either find a way to reduce your costs or find a new customer to target. 

Free-space optics company AOptix launched with funding in 2000, but folded 16 years later when the market was looking for cheaper telecommunication solutions than its $80,000 links.

What’s your advantage?

Once your product and market are clearly defined, you must be able to articulate your advantage. Why is yoursthe best solution to the problem? 

Start-ups often differentiate on one of three different value propositions: a unique outcome, a reduced cost, or an environmental improvement. You must be able to articulate your value proposition.

However, if you are differentiating on cost, be cautious. Supply chains change and manufacturing costs are volatile. Your price advantage can be quickly wiped out by a competitor who is able to make a similar product for even less.

Who is on your team?

So, you know you’ve got a technology that solves a problem, you know exactly who you’re going to solve the problem for, and you know why your solution is the best. 

But do you have the right team? Many great ideas based on solid science fail at this point just because the teams aren’t made up of the right people.

Successful teams encompass a diversity of skills and thought. This diversity manifests itself in technical strengths, business savvy, complementary personality types, and market knowledge. 

For example, in addition to finding someone with the right skills to fill the CFO and CTO roles, look for a pessimist to balance an optimist. If the project leader is a big-picture person, make sure you’ve got someone who likes to get stuck in the weeds. If your product is an innovative new moisture sensor for baby diapers, someone on your team had better have an infant.

In addition, it’s important that the team has a collective sense of purpose and shares similar values and business goals. Are you building a lifestyle business that you want to be involved in for the next 20 years, or a business that you want to sell for $2million five years from now? 

You’ll run the business differently, depending on the answer.

Once these four questions are answered, you’ll be better prepared to start down the path of a new startup. Remember that you’ll likely hear ‘No’ a thousand times before you hear ‘Yes!’ and that you will learn more from failure than success. Good luck on your journey! 

This article originally appeared in a slightly different format in SPIE membership magazine Photonics Focus.


Sujatha Ramanujan, PhD, was featured in the 2019 SPIE Women in Optics planner. Luminate is an accelerator programme for optics, photonics, and imaging-enabled applications. Each year, 10 teams from around the world receive $100,000 each to attend a six-month programme, providing business development training, technical facilities, mentoring, and access to potential partners and investors. The programme also invests $2million annually in follow-on funding to the most promising companies.