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Examining The Drop-In Replacement

Examining The Drop-In Replacement

Entrepreneurs often like to promote their solutions as "drop-in replacements" for existing technologies. This makes a lot of sense. No established company wants to hear about a different way of doing something that incurs significant switching costs or other associated manufacturing hardships even if the novel solution, material, or product provides additional compelling cost and/or performance benefit(s). In my experience, these claims of drop-in replacements usually have to be taken with a serious grain of salt.

Here at Pangaea Ventures, we interact with a wide variety of clean tech-focused companies enabled by advanced materials. From next generation solar or battery materials and devices to innovative biological routes to producing substances usually derived from petrochemicals, the clean technology spectrum enabled by advanced materials is quite broad. One of the messages that keeps being regurgitated regardless of domain or process is how x, y, and z are "drop-in replacements" for A, B, and C.

From an overly narrow focus on a specific part of the value chain to downright delusion or worse, deceit, true drop-in replacements that really make meaningful impacts on an industry or process are few and far between.

Let's take the printed electronics aka plastic electronics, organic electronics, large area electronics, or flexible electronics ‘industry' – though perhaps technology platform is a more apt term – as an example case for the often-dubious drop-in replacement claim.

Many boxes need to be checked before a company operating in the printed electronic space can truly claim drop-in replacement status. This applies throughout the printed electronics value chain from the materials suppliers to the printers and converters to the OEMs. Because Pangaea is exclusively focused on advanced materials, let's compile a less-than-comprehensive list of questions to help assess the true nature of a materials supplier's drop-in replacement claim:

  • Does the material require proprietary processing equipment/methods or can standard processing equipment be used?
  • Are there different heating/drying requirements for the material? Can conventional ovens already in use by the printers be utilized without modification?
  • Can the material be deposited and processed at the same speeds as other materials in the manufacturing process to allow true roll-to-roll production?
  • Does the material require deposition in vacuum or can it be done in ambient conditions?
  • Does the material have different management or maintenance methods on-press or a need to employ different clean up techniques?
  • Are unique in-line process controls or registration requirements necessary to print the material for functional devices?
  • Does the material have any unusual interactions with other constituent materials or layers in the device?
  • Does the company have the necessary supplier certifications in place to enter in to production with a customer or OEM?
  • Can the company scale up the fabrication processes necessary to be involved in a high volume application area?

Now, it's worth noting that a product does not necessarily need to be a drop-in replacement to be commercially viable or innovative. Some products offer unique advantages but require some changes to be utilized in a printed electronics manufacturing process. For example, a conductive ink that can be printed and cured very quickly to low resistivity at low temperatures with no substrate degradation or layer poisoning that requires a different on-press ink management strategy or cleanup process is not quite a drop in replacement and should not be marketed as such. Instead, marketing the ink as a transformational alternative better serves both the company selling the materials as well as customers buying the material as this method better conveys the realistic expectation that most new products do not exactly fit the mold of what they are attempting to displace.

So, budding entrepreneurs/marketers out there: be cautious in using the label drop-in replacement and be ready to defend your claim from many angles of attack. Carelessness in this area can demonstrate a lack of understanding the value chain and if you don't understand a value chain, how can you successfully manage one?

Associate, Pangaea Ventures Ltd. Matt holds an MPhil in Micro- & Nanotechnology Enterprise from the University of Cambridge and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a BSE in Materials Science & Engineering.View Matthew Cohen's profile on LinkedIn

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