Matthew Wahlrab
Chief Executive Officer, Rapid Alpha

The rapid pace of product development is creating new challenges for brand protection professionals. Understanding when to get involved, how to stay on top of product iterations, the increased use of partnerships, and limited availability of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) involved in development are common challenges in developing and implementing brand protection strategies. Rather than create new processes, each and every time, and constantly looking for new software, brand protection professionals should leverage tools common to the majority of R&D and product development specialists, referred to as the Stage Gate Process of development.


Throughout the development lifecycle of any new product, there are several touch points where decisions that impact the brand are needed. A useful construct to identify these touch points was developed by NASA in the 1970s to track the progression from idea to flight-ready technology into nine discrete Technology Readiness Levels, or TRLs. It may seem far-fetched to look at NASA developed processes for the production of say footwear, but the TRL stages lend valuable structure to development crossing all product categories.

Table 1: Examples of Technology Readiness Level Stage Gates

Each of the nine stage gates relate the development of the technology to a numbered TRL level. For those in product development and R&D, the TRL score imparts contextual information on the progress in transitioning from an idea to a market-ready product.

Each of the nine TRLs includes clear criteria that must be met for an individual TRL to have been achieved. In the NASA TRL system, a new TRL is achieved once the underlying criteria required for successful completion of that stage gate of development has been met. In a brand context, the planning associated with each TRL stage gate brings predictability to the launch of new products, which is vital to maintaining and growing market share in fast-moving industries. Though developed for “technology” centric industries TRL can serve as essential guideposts no matter what the product being developed.

These stage gates can be carefully planned and monitored using project management software. They may also foster transparency across an organization, alerting various stakeholders when a project will be up for a stage gate review for its next TRL level. Access to an enterprise-wide project management system is helpful in creating this transparency through clear check-in points and deadlines throughout the product development cycle and across responsible departments.

Importantly, each stage gate also presents an opportunity to proactively identify brand protection issues and risk mitigation strategies within your company’s product development plan. That is, they can be used as checkpoints for making sure your brand protection plan is on track and protecting your company’s growth.

TRL 1 – 4 Involvement Opportunities

Innovation ecosystems often involve distributed networks for identifying, accessing, and transitioning technology from TRL 1 – TRL 9. This is due in part to the different skill sets involved at different stages, and the inherent risk associated with advancing multiple concepts from TRL 1 through TRL 9. By identifying partners capable of filling in development gaps, an organization can spread out the risks and benefits of transitioning products from TRL 1 – TRL 9.

Table 2: Technology Development by Entity Type

The growing number of partnerships between corporations and universities underscore the viability of employing an innovation ecosystem to nurture, monitor and develop technology. In addition to accelerating the pace of product development, these gates in R&D capabilities can help identify brand risk and solutions. For example, universities often publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, providing an opportunity for technology scouting. These publications are often accompanied by a provisional utility application, creating potential hidden Freedom-to-Operate issues and indemnification opportunities for companies sourcing fundamental aspects underlying the technology driving new product features and products. For universities, achieving a TRL 4 often coincides with trademark and copyright opportunities, sun setting trade secrets in favor of patent filings, and long-term infringement scouting and licensing efforts.

TRL 4 – 6

Aside from possibly the largest multinational companies, the first opportunity most brand protection professionals will have in implementing their brand strategy begins at about TRL 6. As seen in Table 2, a technology gap often exists between TRL 4 and TRL 6. This technology gap arises from the conclusion of technology investigation and development activities that occur within universities and government funded laboratories, generally at TRL 4, and the commencement of the corporate R&D activities. For brand protection professionals in this scenario, understanding where technology to fill the gap is sourced from dictates the agreements that will be used and compliance obligations. At this stage, brand protection professionals can take the opportunity to work with company SMEs to outline the company’s brand protection guidelines and opportunities for intellectual property (IP) protection stacking (e.g., the use of patents, copyright, trademarks, and/or trade secrets to overlap protection to expand the opportunities to pursue infringing products that enter the market).

TRL 7 – 9

Products completing TRL 7 will be introduced into conditions like their intended real-world  environments for the first time. For example technologies or products in TRL 7 in industries like mining, oil & gas, and energy require special agreements for in-field testing. Brand protection specialists in these fields can take a proactive approach in assessing the strength and viability of trade secret protection strategies (e.g., physical site and IT systems security), verify NDAs are in place, and engage legal counsel on IP issues. These events are also excellent opportunities to ensure complete brand protection considerations are being checked off, for example, co-branding or licensing requirements, when the product can be shown to the “public,” trademark registrations for all applicable classes of goods and services, securing indemnification where practicable and even adherence to press release protocols.

As products successfully advance from in-field trials to commercially-ready products, the transition from product development to marketing and brand protection begins. The higher TRL levels for many companies are an opportunity to see how IP protection stacking strategies outlined during the lower TRL levels evolve as the development efforts inch towards commercial products/services, which also reveal additional opportunities for more IP protections. While lower TRL levels represent opportunities to use patent protection to claim core technical elements of the technology solution, higher TRLs are opportunities to use patents to protect the more specific product innovations that make operations in the working environment possible. For products completing TRL 8 and 9, brand protection specialists can engage stakeholders on the feasibility of implementing protection strategies like design patents, trademarks and copyright, while validating that any trade secret strategies still in place are consistent with the company’s tolerance for risk.

TRL stage gates are well-defined, often with clear start and end dates, making these stage gate periods ideal check-in points. Regardless of industry, technology or company growth stage, TRL stage gates provide useful information on the technology or product readiness level, tracking your company’s TRL system provides a framework for proactively taking brand protection actions and mitigating brand protection risk prior to product launch.