When proposing R&D to mature a technology, composing a business plan for a new technology, or simply allocating internal R&D funding, it can be extremely useful to ask yourself the questions of Heilmeier's Catechism. Born in 1936, George Heilmeier is one of the fathers of the liquid crystal display. He was head of DARPA from 1975 to 1977 and is credited with initiating research and development into stealth aircraft like the early Tacit Blue prototype pictured at left. If you submit an R&D proposal to DARPA, you can bet your reviewers are asking themselves these questions:
What are you trying to do?
How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
What's new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
Who cares, who is the customer?
If you're successful, what difference will it make?
What are the risks with the new approach and the payoffs?
How much will it cost to develop?
How long will it take to develop?
You should be able to answer these questions without using jargon and in about a sentence or 2 each. If it takes more than a few sentences to answer the question then your funding agency or investor sure isn't going to get it. If your business plan doesn't answer all these questions you and the plan may be perceived as too high risk.
Investors can also use these questions to quickly evaluate an investment. If you can't sort through the jargon and answer these questions as an investor, how will you know if you are making a good investment.
Being an entrepreneurial aerospace engineer, this was one of the most exciting things for me. Each year the DoD, NASA, the DOT, DOE, and other government agencies solicit over $1B in research from small businesses. A small business is defined as a business with under 500 employees, an easy limitation for a startup to meet. While you may not be developing a new missile guidance technology or a revolutionary new clot-accelerating bandage, the quarterly SBIR solicitations cover a seemingly endless scope and allow multiple grant winners. The initial $100k of funding for 6-months of research allows a developer to prove the feasibility and potential of a technology before applying for a 2-year, $750k phase II effort to develop a prototype. Integracer Capital's principals have taken SBIRs through proposal to Phase-II option and have developed entire low cost spacecraft missions by leveraging this funding vehicle. Don't go at it alone, or even with just VC funding. Let the government fuel your innovation and help maintain the U. S. technological lead!
At a startup or a small company, there is a very limited set of resources and skill sets. If someone has a reasonable idea of how to get something done they can quickly become the resident expert. This is great for an agile organization with a dynamic set of tasks to accomplish quickly and affordably. As a company begins to grow, the original team members who got used to filling every role imaginable have to begin to delegate and relinquish control. Choosing the right people to join your team is key for any startup. Trusting your team is also critical for any founder, allowing you to let go and do the important task of running the company. In some cases, choosing a CEO may be the hardest task for a technology-minded founder. If you are not comfortable guiding the direction of growing company and prefer to keep your head down in the code or in the lab, finding a trustworthy person to hand over the reins to is critical. As CTO you will drive the innovation of the company but you must acknowledge your short falls when it comes to setting strategic direction.