Kelvin Summoogum, Founder of miiCare – an AI-based assistive tech solution that uses tiny wireless sensors and wearable devices to allow older people to live safely at home – explores the hurdles of turning an idea into a market-ready product.
Bringing a scientific product to market is a journey with many challenges. Fortunately, we can learn important lessons from other life-changing products and make the process smoother.
As we know some inventions are discovered by accident as shown by Alexander Fleming and penicillin. Other, intentionally invented products all began as ideas. Any idea is, though, just the beginning of a story. Not everyone is willing to endure all the action and hard work required to turn an idea into reality. So many are lost, or brought to life by others.
If you are a true entrepreneur rather than a dreamer what do you need to be prepared for?
You might think your idea is a breakthrough one, but does it have a place in the market? Are there any similar solutions out there? Is it actually possible to create? And, crucially, is it truly something that people want or need?
To answer these questions, you need to do some thorough research to understand what your market wants and test your idea as a concept before considering taking it further.
I was fortunate in that my idea stemmed from an industry I was already deeply involved in. My role in helping healthcare providers to implement technological solutions meant that I had a good knowledge of which solutions already existed, which worked effectively, and which fell short.
I had also been speaking to and learning the needs of older people on a daily basis. I began to understand that they wanted assistance to help them look after their own health, but without having to leave their own homes – where they felt safe and comfortable – and move into a care home.
It then became clear that there was a gap between what older people needed and the solutions the industry was actually producing. That’s what triggered the idea for miiCare and I was already confident it had a clear space in the market.
If you’re not fortunate enough to be able to speak to your target market on a daily basis, finding ways to meet them, discuss their needs and challenges, and float your idea to them is essential to understanding your market viability.
Producing and funding your technology
If you have reason to believe that you have a viable and original solution to a problem, then it’s time to make it a reality.
Sometimes entrepreneurs have an idea that requires a lot of technical expertise to produce. You’ll either have this know-how yourself, need to learn it (which may take years), or assemble a strong and reliable technical team to help you bring it to life.
As health tech was already a passionate interest of mine, I started to dabble with the miiCare concept in my spare time, and the system eventually began to take shape. But for the idea to really take off, I realised it had to become a business, rather than a hobby, which forced me to set some priorities.
When starting from the ground up, you realise that you need to invest a lot of your own money and be very creative in how you use your money. Every investment you make has to be stretched, so you’ll need to learn how to tap into existing resources in many creative ways.
In my case, I enrolled onto a PhD, which granted me an office, a laptop, access to information, resources and even PhD students who were dying to get involved in a real project. This environment also meant that I was able to bounce ideas off like-minded people and find some future team members and other allies. It’s unlikely you can pull it all off yourself, so collaboration is key.
It’s always worth investing some time to build a strong and reliable team. It really helps to have others to share the workload, but also for support and encouragement when things are not going according to plan, and to share in your successes when the hard work pays off.
If you’re bringing a brand new concept to life, you’ll be starting from scratch. If you’re expanding on an existing idea, though, you’ll have more than just a blank page to work from and will be able to find solutions that can be improved upon.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on existing components that could save you a lot of time. While I once considered designing miiCare’s sensors from scratch, I realised that mass-produced sensors which perform the same function were already available and were far cheaper to use in the long run.
Such decisions can minimise your R&D cycle, reducing the time and money it takes you to get your product to market. If you canobtain components that are good quality and have all the relevant certifications, you should take advantage.
Production and marketing costs can also add up. If you’ve spent much of your resources on R&D, this can become a real stumbling block later on. Fortunately, there are more funding sources than ever, especially if you have a proven concept and have completed your R&D.
To fund the production of miiCUBE, for example, we’re running an equity crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube, attracting over £300k from a variety of investors.
So, crowdfunding can be a way to gain funds from a fleet of investors who will be able to strengthen your business case, support your launch efforts, and prove that there’s a market interest.
Testing the product
When building your idea, it’s also crucial to keep your end users in mind. Remember to regularly ask yourself, and ideally check with your potential customers, whether they will actually be able to use it.
We work with older people who are naturally technophobic and quick to lose trust when technology isn’t straight-forward and working as it should.
We also encountered software problems almost every day. While our code is written to allow the AI to react to various use cases, testing the product with the elderly introduced new incidents and behaviours that the AI tech couldn’t yet predict, meaning that the model would fail if we didn’t fix them.
This is why we’ve spent years making sure that our AI works in every scenario imaginable, and is able to detect the many different characteristics displayed by our users.
As a techie, I like to focus on features, but all of my snazzy capabilities would have been useless if an elderly person was unable to operate it. By asking that question, it shifted my focus from ‘can an elderly person adapt to the miiCUBE’ to ‘can miiCUBE adapt to the elderly’?
That simple change of phrase changed everything about the development.
Ultimately, you should constantly remind yourself of your purpose, maintain a strong level of discipline, and set key milestones. It’s also important to keep in touch with the outside world and engage with end users throughout the process.
There comes a time when you have to get the project out there just to get money in. You’ll also find development beginning to plateau; there are a limited number of changes you can make before the design process drags on and the product becomes obsolete.
You need to set some very strict disciplines and establish what your MVP needs to achieve and stop when you hit that stage. You’ll then be ready to push the project to the market and with the income generated, roll out updates. At miiCare, we make sure to involve our users, investors and other non-techie individuals in that process – they things differently and it is wise to follow their advice.
A final point to mention. When you eventually come to filing a patent application, it’s important to be very careful who you ask for help. You’ll want to ensure that they sign an NDA, in case they’re working with a potential competitor or have the potential to leak ideas – accidentally or otherwise.
I’m sure there will be many times when it becomes very tempting to pack it all in, opt for the stability of a fulltime job, and reclaim your free time – all of which are good reasons why many inventions never make it to market.
Hopefully, by illustrating some of the challenges of bringing a scientific product to market and providing some examples from my own experience, you’ll be better prepared for success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelvin Summoogum, Founder and CEO of miiCare, a tech start-up which uses an innovative AI-based solution to give elderly people the choice to live independently in their own homes.
It mimics some of the human basic senses to create situational awareness and understand the health of a person, meaning that panic buttons or pendants are no longer required.
Summoogum lost his grandmother from a hip fracture, following a fall at home. Help was only provided the next morning after hours spent in pain and agony.
Often dubbed ‘the Amazon Echo for the elderly’, miiCare uses miiCUBE, an AI-powered assistive technology solution, which links with an ecosystem of sensors, wearable devices and telehealth equipment.
As well as monitoring movement and the use of appliances, miiCare records the vitals of users – allowing for the early depiction of illnesses – acts as a voice-activated home security and entertainment system and is even linked to a call centre of health professionals.