The company had a contract with Olympus to start manufacturing, but a change in the market altered the plans. While it was true that the technology would reduce the lenses by a factor of two, the company still had to be able to make one GRIN lens for less than the cost of making two regular lenses. In the end, the economics of the technology fell short.

Turning “Failure” into “Success”

An evaluation of the SBIR done in 1990 might have judged the company a failure. However, the story did not stop there. In 1992, Dr. Moore was asked to make a new type of disposable endoscope—a device to see inside the body, often for the purpose of performing minimally invasive surgery. This request, too, was accompanied by an unexpected economic context. In the economics of lens manufacture, the cost of large lenses is very high; as size diminishes, costs drop until they reach a minimum for lenses of around 5 millimeters in diameter. For lenses smaller than 5 mm, polishing became hard to control and costs began to rise again. The company developed a new technique, however, by which it was able to make smaller-diameter lenses more cheaply. By this method, a 1-mm GRIN optic, for example, was about eight times cheaper than a 2-mm optic. So in 1996 the company was able to introduce the first “borescope,” which is today a commonly used device for seeing inside many materials and structures. The first such device was made to look not inside the body, but inside machines. Dr. Moore’s company is now the largest manufacturer of borescopes in the United States.

Finding Success Depends on When it is Measured

In terms of the SBIR program, he said, “if we hadn’t done the earlier work that ‘failed,’ we couldn’t have gone to the next step and ‘succeeded’.” He said that this is one of the reasons an assessment would be complex. “Innovation does not follow a linear model,” he said. “It stops and starts.” He judged that if his research project had been part of a large company, it would have been killed in 1990 and the technology abandoned. “But when you’re a small company,” he said, “you only have one technology. You figure out how to make it work or you go out of business.” Since then, his company had gone up and down in terms of sales and people, but it was now very successful.

He concluded by saying that the story of his company should alert the study panel to the need to pay careful attention to the location of each company on its own particular “time line.” He said that if a company could be evaluated more than once as it developed, the study panel might detect the kinds of fluctuations experienced by his own company.

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