The ten-year time lag from invention to adoption
“It takes a decade to invent a new hardware technology," says Bulović. In some cases it takes even longer. He pointed to examples as diverse as the zipper, velcro, high-powered microscopes, and the OLED screen displays on Samsung Galaxy phones. In each case, the hardware innovation reached the hands of customers or users more than 10 years after the initial technology was invented. The Ziploc bag is another example.
Why do paradigm-shifting hardware innovations take such a long time to reach the marketplace? For one thing, hardware requires the making of actual objects. And if the objects are game-changers, then the manufacturer isn't only making the object: Usually the manufacturer also has to make the machines that make the object. Especially if the object is a bona fide, groundbreaking piece of nanotechnology.
By contrast, you can build, test, launch, and sell a new software app in a six-month span. With hardware, the initial building and testing are a significant, cash-draining challenge.
And when it comes to the selling, innovative hardware makers face the same challenges anyone with a never-seen-before product faces: They are often subverting or reinventing traditional categories. Consider, as a hypothetical example, how you'd sell Ubiquitous Energy's transparent photovoltaics coatings for use in an office building. To whom would you actually sell them? The landlord? The tenant? Window makers? Contractors? Architects?
Likely all of the above. And that's no easy task.
Given these realities, Bulović notes, there will always be opportunities for startups in hardware. For established companies with balance sheets to burnish, investments in slow-reward hardware innovations will never look as flattering as investments in quick-to-market software. The difficult part is keeping your startup alive long enough to see the idea become a product.