Technical Marketing
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Seeing the light

David Brooks  24.08.2016

When I  worked for large corporates there was often a regular parade of inventors anxious to convince us to strike a deal with them to produce and market their latest world- beating product.

The typical pitch fell somewhere betweenBritain's got Talent auditions and theDragon's Den, neither of which were on air then. It was also before the Internet offered a valuable research tool to check them out. For the inventors the prize would be some royalty deal where we took on board the expense of engineering the product for manufacture, testing, standards compliance, investing in tooling, producing the product and marketing. Why did big companies with their own significant research and development teams bother to entertain what was typically a succession of self-deluded or simply crazy inventors? First they might just have genuine breakthrough in an area of interest that had eluded us and further more they might hold a patent. More realistically it was case of not wanting to miss out on a great possibility, much like in the pop music world of not wanting to be known as the manager who failed sign up the Beatles.

Into this odd aspect of our product management life breezed Myron Khan, an American inventor of polarizing lighting panels. A number of things combined to make this Dragon's Den style bid for support more interesting than most. At Thorn Lighting we already produced acrylic lighting panels which typically comprised multiple rows of small pyramids for lighting control. What's more, my boss the head of marketing had recently conducted a fact finding tour of the USA. Here he had observed the widespread adoption of suspended ceilings in offices and stores which used troffer lighting fittings which could be dropped into a ceiling module instead of ceiling tiles. Further more, on the premise that American building trends were ahead of the UK, visiting America gave a glimpse of the future. Already,  on the strength of his report a suspended ceiling company in Slough had been  purchased positioning Thorn for this promised future. Coincidentally Polarised sun glasses were en vogue in the early 1970s and created a premium, high tech eyeware sector as opposed to the 'dar'glasses we then bough from Woolworths or Boots.  And just to complete the picture the price of oil quadrupled in1973 prompting urgent calls for energy cuts of which lighting was a major culprit .

Myron Kahn who was not one for holding back, presented his  Polarised panels as the saviour of civilisation as we knew it. It seemed like a no-brainer - easy to retrofit polarised lighting panels that offered not only energy savings, but sharper vision, reduced glare and less eye strain and all to go into the suspended ceiling lighting fittings we expected would sell in their tens of thousands. But there was one niggling little problem  (there  were others) and that was the science of his panels. No recognised scientific expert seemed willing to endorse these claims. Worse still the American Illuminating Engineering Society the body that amongst other things set recomended lighting levels for illumination levels, refused to even mention Myron's polarized panels in their publications.

The fundamental issue was understanding how the  functioning of polarisation which had been implemented via a rather dull coating sheet applied to an other wise standard acrylic panel actually worked. A favourite way of demonstrating polarisation was to rotate polarised lenses and observe a reduction in light - great for sun glasses. There were a series of marketing/technical meetings with Myron Kahn largely to convince us how it worked. We were invited to observe how much better the colours of an R & D manager's tie appeared under this polarised light. Ever the showman Myron somehow contrived to appear on the BBC television news as the first  American  business to fly into Heathrow on the inaugural flight of Concorde. He intimated he was dashing to Britain to sign a multi million dollar contract. For some reason there was no reference to meeting some cynical product mangers in Slough! 

The polarized panels enjoyed little success in the UK and were hideously expensive. The benefit of troffers was cheapness as the ceiling grid provide much of the support structure. The prismatic panel sheets which controlled the light distribution carried big, big mark ups. It was where we made our money.

Footnote:br There is little about  Myron Kahn to be found on the Internet, apart that is, for a fulsome Obituary in theLos Angeles Times. In an eulogy that reads like one of his own sales brochures he was described as "the darling of  economists, ergonomists and conservastionists."

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