Dealing with disruptive imaging

Pursuing esoteric technologies may be risky, but the rewards continue to be worth the quest.

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Pursuing esoteric technologies may be risky, but the rewards continue to be worth the quest.

Clayton Christensen is a man, a Web site (www.claytonchristensen.com), and a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School (www.hbs.edu). His book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, received the Global Business Book Award for the best business book of 1997. In the text, he points out that companies can lose their market leadership when confronted with a “disruptive technology.”

According to Christensen, a disruptive technology is one that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. This disruption starts by gaining a foothold in the low end (and less-demanding part) of the market, successively moving up-market through performance improvements, and finally displacing the incumbent’s product. A good example, one could argue, is the microprocessor and its effect on the mainframe-computer market.

With today’s short product-development cycles, engineers and engineering managers are, however, forced to listen and respond to the immediate needs of the market. Little effort, it seems, is spent in the R&D of newer disruptive technologies that may be incompatible with current designs and have no short- or medium-term sales potential. Christensen points out that the risk of investing in such R&D may outweigh the rewards associated with incremental product improvements of existing technology.

However, the early stages of development of disruptive technologies may result in products that are very different from the initial concepts developed by the inventors. For example, in 1969, George Smith and Willard Boyle working at AT&T Bell Labs (www.bell-labs.com) invented the charge-coupled device (CCD), which ultimately replaced tube-based devices. The device has allowed development of faster, lighter, and less-expensive products. But the inspiration for Smith and Boyle was not the creation of a device for this purpose. They wanted to build a new kind of semiconductor memory for computers. Only later did they realize the greater potential of the idea.

Two decades later, Eric Fossum, James Janesick, and others pioneered the development of the CMOS image se nsor, a device that was often touted as a replacement for the CCD. Rather than replace CCD technology, however, CMOS technology has complemented it in consumer products with specialized applications in low-light and high-speed imaging.

Recognizing these stages of development is key for venture capitalists and others in determining when to invest in a company’s development. Indeed, as with CCD and CMOS technologies, understanding that a new technology may be disruptive is not enough. Companies and venture capitalists (VCs) must also recognize the effect the technology will have on existing product lines and how products developed using these technologies will be integrated into existing systems. But for companies and VCs alike, knowing what to do with the technology may be less important that knowing when to do it!

Recently, Palm Computing (www.palm.com) founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky formed Numenta (www.numenta.com) to develop technology derived from Hawkins’ research in neuroscience and brain theory. According to Hawkins, this will allow the development of a memory architecture modeled after the mammalian cortex that can solve problems in pattern recognition and machine learning.

For years, this work has been the subject of worldwide research. In the 1940s, the late neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch and logician Walter Pitts wrote a number of classic papers describing the Perceptron, a concept that resulted in the development of artificial neural networks. Although specialized database-analysis software and some vision systems were developed using the technology, the promise of a “brain-like” computer remains elusive.

While some companies are chasing esoteric futuristic technologies, one fact is certain. Without investment, these technologies will never come to the fore. Let’s hope that the risk of investing in them outweighs the rewards of pursuing more-established technologies.

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Andy Wilson, Editor
andyw@pennwell.com

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