Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) were originally conceived at NASA in 1974 as a means to define the maturity of a technology through its development cycle. It was formally adopted in the 1990s as a nine-level scale as shown in the embedded figure below. Essentially the scale spans from a valid concept (TRL1) to the technology formally working in service for significant hours (TRL9). The NASA scale has been adopted and adapted by numerous organisations over the years including the Department of Defence, The European Space Agency, the oil and gas industry, and the European Commission. There is now even a TRL Zero to represent a completely unproven “blue sky” idea.The TRL scale is used widely across industry now as a marker for the status of a technology. Moreover, many funding schemes will require technology to be within specific TRL bands in order to be eligible.
Unfortunately, TRLs are often only understood in general terms and, as a result, it is very common for the TRL to be overestimated. This can have serious consequences for small businesses, as overestimating TRL can result in a gross underestimate of the time and cost to get the technology to market.
In particular, TRL 4 to 7 is the most common range where TRL is overestimated. It is often referred to as the Valley of Death, and for good reason, because the level of investment required to get a technology properly to TRL7 is so much higher than originally estimated that the technology or business folds. However, it is very much dependent on the sector for which the technology is intended. For example, heavily regulated industries such as aerospace or pharmaceuticals can take a decade (at least) for a technology concept (particularly a revolutionary one) to make it to market. Moreover, technology for harsh environments where the material and joining systems are severely challenged, can create very long development times. Less regulated industries, such as digital technologies, generally work to a much shorter timescale.
...overestimating TRL can result in a gross underestimate of the time and cost to get the technology to market.
The biggest mistake made when estimating mid TRLs is that people assess the technology far too much in isolation. To explain, if you are designing a widget and you have tested it in broadly realistic conditions and the widget didn’t fall apart and did broadly what you expected it to do, this isn’t necessarily a good indicator of TRL6. At TRL6 you should be considering the system as a whole, including the economic and technical practicality of the chosen materials and components, manufacturability, integration with other components and sub-systems, overall reliability of the system, stability of its function with time, conformity to regulations, etc. Moreover, as technologies approach TRL 6 and TRL7, the cost of demonstration increases significantly. Hiring or developing the facilities in which to test the technology as well as manufacturing costs are not trivial. Again these issues are very much dependent on the sector and technology, but these are general indicators.
It is worth noting that once a technology is at TRL7, it really isn’t too far from a marketable product. At TRL8 it should be demonstrated at-or-near commerical scale, fully integrated in to its working environment, with realistic manufacturing drawings and bill-of-materials, and development and validation of volume manufacturing processes. Beyond that, at TRL9, it will be fully installed in the end-user environment and experience actual service.
When you are a motivated small business, it is understable to want to strongly sell the idea of your technology to investors, funders, and end-users, but over-selling can create significant problems further down the line. I have personally witnessed numerous small businesses struggling due to underestimating the time and cost of maturing their technology. Moreover, if you are applying for funding, I have read many over-ethusiastic predictions of the TRL growth within the project timeframe. Be mindful of just how difficult it is to grow TRLs, particularly mid-TRLs, when applying for funding and you won’t come unstuck (we’ll remind you of this if you work with us!).
The moral of the story is to err on the side of caution when considering the TRL of your technology. You can find guidance and even TRL calculator spreadsheets online, but make sure its specific to your sector.
Also, thankfully, there are Catapult Centres in the UK that have amazing facilties to help support UK industry to get through the difficult Valley of Death. These centres address numerous sectors and provide skills and facilties that often represent barriers to small businesses to mature their technology to a product level.
If you have any questions regarding TRLs we would be happy to help!