Technology Incubations: What Value Do They Bring?

At CMIC we aim to establish our criticality to Microsoft Research (MSR) and selected product groups (PG) through our focus on enhancing, accelerating, and optimising the transfer of MSR technologies to product with a primary focus on problems with relevance to the Middle East.

On one hand, research teams usually look ahead from three to ten years in the future (sometimes even further) depending on the research field. On the other hand, product teams develop products and services to be released to the users within months to one or two years at most. Incubation teams address this temporal gap between research and product. That’s the primary role that we play at CMIC.

The goals of a successful incubation are to reduce the technology and business risk associated with a research output, in order to increase its appeal to the product groups. Technology risk reduction is the investigating and addressing of issues related to the performance, scalability, security etc. of a new technology. This usually involves developing stable prototypes of that technology. Business risk reduction involves envisioning and prototyping real-life scenarios around the new technology to assess its viability for specific target segments and its fit for a specific product.

An ideal incubation should be driven by the roadmap and future plans for a specific product and it should run one to two years ahead of the product cycle. The team assigned to a specific incubation includes members from the research side and the development side of CMIC. When given the future plans for a product, our applied researchers identify existing relevant research within MSR and lead the collaboration with the MSR researchers to kick off the incubation process. CMIC’s engineering team is responsible for assessing any existing code and developing stable prototypes. During an incubation cycle, delivering frequent demos to the product team is very useful, especially if that demo is implemented on the target platform. Presenting a demo, rather than slides and research data makes a huge difference. It increases the commitment of the product team which is invaluable, especially when it comes to fine tuning the scenarios and defining the incubation’s success metrics and exit criteria.

Incubations are frequently iterative. When an issue with the new technology is identified, the technology is sent back to research and the incubation may have to be halted until the researchers address the issue. Then a new iteration of the incubation is started. In a small number of cases, the issues identified are showstoppers, in which case the incubation is terminated.

Incubations require the involved development team to have domain expertise due to complexities and instabilities associated with new technologies and the limited documentation available. For that reason, CMIC have decided to focus our efforts on selected domains, in which we invest time and resources to acquire the necessary depth. This focus acts as a sign of commitment to the product teams. In some cases, the product teams look for our support even after the incubation is successfully completed. This long-term relationship with the product team is also advantageous for CMIC, because it creates multiple tech transfer opportunities spanning several product releases.

The primary measure of an incubation’s success is a tech transfer. For successful, impactful tech transfers, we must understand the product team’s roadmap and anticipate which technologies would appeal to them and start our incubations in advance. We must be proactive and take risks in order to be ready with stable technologies in time for the product team’s planning phase. And finally, we must wear two hats, the research hat and the development hat, and switch between them as necessary, because incubation is the link between research and development.

By: Hussein Salama, Director of Microsoft Innovation Lab