At the heart of every groundbreaking business is a great idea. Original concepts that address real-world problems in innovative, compelling ways create products that meaningfully improve customers’ lives. However, having a great small business idea isn’t enough on its own. It takes time, organization, materials, and often a substantial financial investment to transform a great idea into a successful business.
The Protolabs Cool Idea Award aims to help innovators start their businesses. The organization’s work over the past decade offers budding entrepreneurs a glimpse into exactly what it takes to turn your idea into a product and set up your business for success.
Protolabs — a provider of computer numerical control (CNC) machines and injection-molded parts — awards a manufacturing grant called the Cool Idea Award to innovative entrepreneurs who address underserved needs. Winners receive awards worth up to $250,000 and the manufacturing and promotional support that can be challenging for entrepreneurs and small business owners to establish independently.
Protolabs offers grant recipients assistance from its expert engineers to help optimize creative business ideas for manufacturing, including:
The company created the Cool Idea program to stimulate innovation by helping deserving products move past the idea stage to actual market viability. The contest focuses on concepts that fall into one of the following categories:
So far, over 40 inventions spanning various industries have won the Cool Idea award. Here’s a look at two extraordinary winners:
Business grants like the Cool Idea Aware are excellent ways to raise funds for your small business, especially in the early development stages. Depending on your business’s needs, many nonprofit, private, and government grant options are available.
You can’t have a great product without a cool idea, but a cool idea isn’t enough on its own. The Protolabs Cool Idea winners all must present fantastic, original concepts. However, they also must have a sturdy foundation for their product’s development and success.
In most cases, Protolabs intervenes near the end of a product idea’s development, offering an extra boost to bring it into the world and the hands of the people who need it — whether they’re chemotherapy patients, astronauts, or anyone else.
In addition to addressing a social, medical, or environmental need, Protolabs Cool Idea applicants must already have the following:
The Protolabs process offers meaningful guidance for anyone trying to breathe life into a business idea.
Maybe you want to bring a new product into the world but can’t think of an idea that excites you. Perhaps you already have a winning idea but can’t quite bring it to the next level.
In either case, taking a few practical steps can help you become one of the next great innovators, even if you aren’t working with a company like Protolabs.
If you’re unsure where to start, try to identify problems or pain points a new product or service could address. Become a keen observer of your daily life and ask the following questions:
Answering these questions will help you identify a market niche and determine how to reach it with your product.
Once you’ve thought of a compelling idea for an underserved niche, conduct a market analysis to determine what already exists in the market. It’s essential to learn what works and what doesn’t. Take the following steps in your market analysis:
Market information will also help you understand how to reach your target customers through marketing and advertising. For example, consider where or how you’d like to sell your offering. How will you bring it to your target audience?
Once you have a complete idea of your product or service, it’s time to bring others on board. You’ll need a team to help you build your product, funders to pay for it, vendors to sell it, and more. To sway supporters, create a great elevator pitch.
An elevator pitch engages listeners, introduces a problem, and explains how your product is the right solution. Your pitch doesn’t have to cover every moving part of your idea; it just has to open the door for a longer conversation.
The best way to determine product success is to test your new business idea on potential customers. A soft launch provides you with a limited audience of your choosing. You could invite specific people within the market or offer the product for a limited time at the location of your choice and cap how many people access it.
Your soft launch can be a good indicator of buzz and product interest. Encourage participants to leave feedback that you can incorporate into the final design.
As you receive more feedback on your product or service — before and after its launch — consider how to improve it. Pay attention to what’s not working as you’d hoped. Note what’s resonating with customers. This feedback is valuable and critical for improving your offering.
The creative process is highly iterative, and that should be reflected at all stages of your product or service’s lifecycle. After you develop your idea, riff on it a little — imagine how it might work in different contexts or for different audiences. Even if this process brings you back where you started, it’s valuable.
Experiment with various designs, materials, and manufacturing processes. You could uncover more applications for your product or service or more efficient or sustainable practices. Iteration will help you grow and adapt to the future.
Protolabs recognizes the value of pursuing a great idea. Not all of its grant recipients’ ideas have taken off in their unique markets or entered the mainstream but all were worthwhile. Participants gained valuable insights they can apply to their next great idea.
Treat your own great ideas with the same grace and care. If you let the fear of failure stop you before you even begin building your concept — let alone iterating on your idea — you risk missing out on something great. But if you take the time to nourish your cool ideas with the time, infrastructure, and resources they need, they could transform into a vibrant business.
Chad Brooks contributed to the reporting and writing of this article.