crossing the chasm

Take the Blinders Off and Cross the Chasm

Universities train students to become specialized experts and not to cross the chasm. It turns out that they instructed us to become like “high-prized horses with blinders on.” By that, I mean they taught a lot about our field. Yet, we got little to nothing that would help us use our expertise in an entrepreneurial setting. 

In 1997, I left academia and joined a high-tech company. They hired me as a scientist for research & development.

Soon, it became clear that I had two options

  1. Work on other people’s projects, or 
  2. Bring in funding and head up my own research group.

The second option sounded attractive to me. I started writing research proposals for the SBIR program of the U.S. Government. SBIR stands for Small Business Innovative Research. Different government agencies create solicitations in which they describe various challenges. Small businesses with up to 500 employees can apply with research proposals. I was fortunate to get my first funding pretty quickly.

set up my first research project. Soon others followed. I had a small group now. Life was great!

I Discovered There Is A Profound Gap Between R&D And Innovation Commercialization

Along the way, I discovered there is a profound gap between research & development and innovation commercialization. I became aware of the conversation around “crossing the chasm” and “the innovators’ dilemma.” I became more and more aware of the depth of that chasm.

My colleagues and I had been trained as experts in our respective fields. We knew much about chemistry, physics, RF engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. Or, more accurately, we learned even more about specific subsets of these fields

But what did we know about business, sales, marketing, finance, and leadership – all the things one needs to be successful in converting our expertise into a successful business? Not much at first. It was all on-the-job learning. We learned via costly and time-sucking trial and error.

I realized I had been trained as an “expert horse” with blinders on. Yes, I knew my craft. I knew how to learn, think and solve problems. Yet, the blinders were hiding all the other things an entrepreneur needs. 

A Systematic Shortfall Of Our Educational System

This is definitely not my Ph.D. advisor’s fault. It is a systematic shortfall of our educational system. Some universities have woken up to that fact and offer a course or two such as “Entrepreneurship for Engineers.” This step is a good start.

Could “Ralph” Be The Answer?

Then there was … let’s call him Ralph. Our high-tech company had hired him to help us commercialize our innovations. In short, it was a disaster. He took six months to come up to speed and research our market opportunities. I was okay with that. I got it takes time.

Yet, the result was not funny. Ralph said there was a one-billion-dollar commercialization opportunity. We were pretty curious about what he had uncovered. It turned out to be none of what we had already worked on and made functional. It was a problem for which we had a solution or could envision a solution. The laws of physics seemed to make it impossible. 

It became clear that Ralph could not cross the chasm either. He came from the business and marketing side and had difficulty understanding the technologies well enough to be of substantial help.

Who I Became As A Result

From all that, I understood that crossing this chasm takes a translator who can speak both languages, the technical one and the business one. I worked pretty hard to become such a person. Yet, it was fun and worth the effort! And I have been teaching and supporting experts who choose to cross the chasm ever since.

I’m Curious

Do you have similar experiences?

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