Wednesday, 2 May 2007

"Applications Engineering" or Platform

Early stage investors like backing "platform" technologies, but everyone knows these are rather rare beasts. On the other hand customers buy solutions to their problems- especially if they're looking at using a cutting edge technology. This can put an early stage technology company in a bind that's particularly frustrating for company and potential investors alike.
Without naming-names, obviously, I've seen quite a few companies who are falling into this gap. A particular example I saw a few years ago, but with huge parallels to a much more recent applicant for funding, was looking at a sensor technology. This company had a technology with a particular set of USPs which took it well beyond the existing sensors. It also had some early customers keen to use their technology. So, the company believed, we should've been keen to pursue the investment. However, the problem was that the early customers had applications which didn't really use the USPs of the sensor. Indeed the main reason that the customers were so enthusiastic was that their inventor was willing to explore doing a relatively small volume sensor with a specification a little different from the off-the-shelf sensors from the big manufacturers. In essence then, although pitching as a "platform" they were addressing early customers who were buying because of the "application engineering" they could obtain from the hungry start-up.
Still, revenue is a good thing, so surely this "application engineering" model should've made the proposition more investable not less? Well, for us at least, it wasn't that simple. The company was tooling up in terms of management, team and core-competencies to match the "applications engineering" model, and that made us at least a little nervous that they'd be able to point the company towards the platform opportunity in a reasonable timescale.
I don't think there's an easy solution to this conundrum- at least I've not come across it yet- but I still believe it is a problem worth recognising when it makes itself known.