January 18th, 2012

5 Lessons You Can Apply to Prototyping New Products


Last year, I built and sold my first cleantech product. It is a tool used to install solar PV modules more efficiently.

Here is the story and what I’ve learned about prototyping in the process. Hopefully, it will be useful to you as well.

Here’s a quick snippet of what I learned.

  1. Closeness with customers is key, especially if you’re getting them to change their behaviors. If you’re building a new product and are not building relationships with beta customers, this is a problem. It is critical for time between iterations and testing. This is also critical for them providing you blunt feedback. Lastly, with many cleantech products you’re interrupting existing operations. If they don’t trust you, they won’t want to risk it.
  2. Don’t assume you know the answer. I was the target customer but 15 minutes of feedback on our alpha prototype enabled us to reduce manufacturing costs by 400% for our beta. This is key because unlike software or internet products, cleantech products are EXPENSIVE and tend to require face to face relationships.
  3. Work on your communications. The concept must be clear to the customer quickly or it will be difficult for them to provide useful feedback that can use to enhance the product.

Click below to read the full story. Also, apply for Cleantech Prototyping Academy if you want to learn best practices of how to build products faster (and cheaper) in order to impress investors or find beta customers. CPA is taught by Ethan Labowitz.

October 31st, 2011

5 Common Problems with Cleantech Prototyping and How to Solve Them

Ethan Labowitz

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The following post is the start of a series focusing on making Boston a world class city for clean energy prototyping. Read more about the Boston Institute for Clean Energy Prototyping.

Clean energy is a tough business.  As entrepreneur Eric Smith put it, we’re really good at leveling mountains and burning coal.  So competing with coal and natural gas on price will require every ounce of innovation we can muster.

But unlike information technology, energy technology is often expensive to prototype.  For some energy innovations, the prototyping stage is so fraught with expense and uncertainty that it becomes a barrier, preventing good ideas from achieving commercial success.

For the past few years, I’ve studied clean energy prototyping.  Much of my work has been with startups, including several in the Boston area.  I’ve helped companies design and build prototypes, and interviewed founders on the challenges they faced during the prototyping process.  Many of the same themes keep cropping up, so I’ve put together a review of some of the most common mistakes to avoid:

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October 24th, 2011

The Plan to Make Boston The Leading City for Clean Energy Prototyping

Ethan Labowitz

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BICEP is the Boston Institute for Clean Energy Prototyping.

It’s run by me, Ethan Labowitz. My goal is clear: I want to make Boston a world class city for clean energy prototyping.  A world class city has the resources and knowledge to build the most high quality prototypes the fastest, for the least amount of money, and with the fewest errors.  While Boston has great engineering talent, many of young engineers lack experience in actually building effective, low-cost prototypes.

What is BICEP’s goal?

Make Boston the best place in the country to prototype a clean energy product. Simple.

What specifically will BICEP do to complete this goal?

BICEP will work to quantifiably decrease prototyping time and costs by offering shop training, reduced rate fabrication and consulting services, and free office hours.

Why is BICEP’s mission important?

The more prototypes that are built and tested, the greater likelihood of building a product that will sell. Products that sell create companies. If the company builds their prototype in Boston, they are likely to stay in Boston.

What is the problem with Boston right now?

While Boston produces a high number of engineers, few recent graduates have any of the hands-on experience needed to build a prototype.  This often causes them to make simple, yet costly mistakes and use private contractors that are not experienced in clean energy prototyping.  Experienced engineers are too expensive for young companies with no revenue.

What is BICEP’s solution?

1 – Offer discounted shop services that are subsidized from donations. BICEP will become a 501c3 and accept donations and grants from organizations and government agencies that see the value in Boston becoming a cleantech prototyping hub.

2 – Offer open office hours, so any cash-strapped startup can get valuable prototyping advice on a first-come, first-served basis.

3 – Cleantech Prototyping Academy – BICEP will host short, intensive workshops for students and professionals who are interested in the space but lack hands-on knowledge.

4 – Be a non-profit. Being a non-profit is key to success because it will allow BICEP to be more transparent and share lessons learned from prototype to prototype. By not making the same mistakes twice, BICEP will be able to further bring down the costs and time to build prototypes.

What is BICEP’s business model?

All businesses, whether non-profit or for profit, must make money in order to succeed. Here’s how BICEP will make money:
1 – Charge money for workshops
2 – Charge money for shop services
3 – Accept donations from organizations, foundation, government and private companies that understand the benefit of building quality prototypes

What is BICEP working on RIGHT now and how can I help?

1 – Building a shop
2 – Schedule office hours
3 – Creating relationships and schedule for Cleantech Prototyping Academy.

If you’d like to help with any of these initiatives or keep up to dates with BICEP’s status, let me know:

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