3 ways deep tech founders can climb out of pilot purgatory

In 2018, Shahin Farshchi of Lux Capital and I discussed the rise of alternative proteins over coffee and other then-hot topics. At one point, Shahin asked me what I thought was a rhetorical question:

Our portfolio companies are amazing as pilots, but they face a challenge moving from pilot to full-scale commercial rollouts. How do your companies move beyond the pilot stage?

I didn’t have a good answer and found myself deep in thought long after our chat. As a deep tech VC, my portfolio companies are destined to face commercialization challenges as they transition to rolling out in scale from small pilots. This is a big, widespread, industry-specific problem.

But big problems make room for big returns, and while I don’t presume to have a silver bullet solution, I do know three ways deep tech founders can make sure their time in pilot purgatory ends in a rollout.

Define your conversion metric

If you could only pick three customers, and the one you’re talking to doesn’t look like one of them, keep looking.

In my experience, most customers don’t really know what success looks like when using any new technology. Sometimes this is because the tech is novel or introduces new processes, but many times it’s also because every stakeholder defines “success” differently.

Your pilot will only be successful if all of the key stakeholders who will sign off on the commercial contract agree it is. Generally, they’ll be able to define what the successful pilot looks like on a conceptual level, but asking them to spell it out as a metric may result only in a chorus of crickets.

As hard as it may seem, engaging these stakeholders to define success as a metric will take away post-pilot ambiguity. A great pilot is one where everyone has the same, detailed understanding of what success looks like.

Know what your pilot proves

It’s generally believed that early-stage startups should focus on proving product-market fit. This means that ultimately, your pilot needs to prove that pouring in a lot of money now will generate much more money later.