Innovation is a key driver of progress and growth, and securing funding is often the first step towards bringing new ideas to life. That's where the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) comes in. The TRL framework is widely used in research and innovation project management by managers, investors, and grant evaluators as a common tool for managing expectations and assessing the level of development of an innovation, as well as the associated risks.
Technologies are not static. They evolve over time, as they are created, developed and improved. The TRL, which stands for “Technological Readiness Level”, is a scale system (from 1-9) to estimate the degree of maturity of a specific technology. This scale helps to determine the level of readiness of a technology before it can be used on a large-scale. TRL spans from the initial conceptual stages, where innovators have their first "Eureka!" moment, to the final stage where the technology is fully developed and available on the market.
Technology Readiness Level (TRL): use and origins
The TRL is common EU funding jargon, and is currently used in many sectors, but it actually finds its origins fifty years ago when it was created by NASA. NASA invented the first draft of the TRL scale when assessing the readiness of different innovations for space discovery operations. The scale was used by scientists to evaluate whether a technology was suitable to be deployed in space, thus reducing future mission risks.
Later on, the US Department of Defense began using the TRL for weapons technology procurement, leading to its adoption by other governmental and military organisations. In 2009, the European Union employed the TRL concept again in a document called "Preparing our Future: Developing a Common Strategy for Key Enabling Technologies in the EU". It expanded TRL beyond just assessing how mature a technology is, and included the readiness of an innovation to be sold commercially.
It has since then been used by the private sector, in particular by industries that have a low risk tolerance. Today, companies integrate TRLs in their technological development, to make better and more informed decision making. Additionally, TRLs are employed by the EU as a means of evaluating project progress criteria for various funding programmes.
What is a “Technology Readiness Level”?
As we have mentioned, a TRL is a reference for different stakeholders (such as engineers, VCs and investors) to determine the current stage of development of an innovation.TRLs have a total of 9 levels: 1 being the lowest readiness stage and 9 the final stage where the innovation is commercialised.
The stages 1-3 represent the different research levels to determine the technology’s feasibility, the TRL evolves into levels 4-6 when development starts (system design, testing, demonstration) and as the innovation starts being deployed and ready for commercialisation it enters the remaining stages 7-9.
Technology Readiness Level (TRL) and EU funding
There are several reasons why the TRL system presents advantages and is useful for EU funding:
- The TRL was designed to enhance decision-making processes and streamline the development of a technology from ideation to execution. Firstly, the TRL scale's primary benefit is that it establishes a universal framework for assessing a technology's level of maturity. Consequently, it promotes a shared understanding among various stakeholders regarding how to gauge technological maturity, serving as a common language for them.
- The TRL serves as an eligibility criterion for certain EU programmes by providing a clear indication of the level of technological maturity required for a project to qualify for funding. EU funding programmes have different calls that require various TRL levels, and a thorough understanding of TRL can aid in securing the necessary funding for the project. Applicants can use this information to ensure that their project meets the necessary requirements and evaluators use it to assess projects.
- Thanks to establishing a universal framework, the TRL makes collaboration easier: the system can encourage collaboration between researchers, innovators within a consortium, by providing a common language and understanding of the level of maturity of a technology. This helps to foster partnerships and facilitate knowledge transfer between different stakeholders.
- TRLs also allows project managers to identify and anticipate potential risks at the beginning stages of the project, through initial testing stages. Lower TRLs are typically associated with higher risks. The various processes and milestones integrated with TRLs allow managers to address potential risks early on, reducing the possibility of encountering significant problems in later stages of the project. Thus, TRLs help make sure that the technology will be adequately tested and validated before it is deployed on a large scale.
- The TRL serves not only as a tool for managing and mitigating risks but also as a valuable planning tool in decision making in general. It lays out a roadmap, allowing project managers to set realistic goals and identify key milestones that need to be achieved before the technology is ready for commercialisation. Although lower TRL projects usually experience more missed deadlines than higher TRL projects, the TRL scale still proves useful in setting achievable goals.
The TRL scale, while useful for simplifying technology maturity estimations, has several shortcomings that need to be mentioned.
Firstly, the definitions of each level are broad, which may result in ambiguity and inconsistency. Secondly, it can be difficult for project managers to determine the transition points between levels and assign a precise TRL score. These issues may contribute to bias since TRLs rely on self-assessed interpretations and lack clarity.
Moreover, the TRL focuses on the readiness level and leaves out other important factors such as system architecture when assessing a technology's readiness for use, which may lead to a mismatch between a system design and its intended operational environment.
Expert tip: Make sure to integrate early on the different components that make up the technological model to reduce risk, because if one component of the innovation is at a lower TRL than the rest of the system, it could cause delays before the technology may enter the market. Developers should be cautious about developing subsystems in isolation.
Additionally, the current TRL scale does not take into account negative and obsolescence factors, and fails to address useful business development factors such as market size, customer target and segmentation and costs/performance metrics. Other alternative models that incorporate such elements have been proposed such as the Technology ReadinessPathway Matrix, the Business Readiness Level (BRL), Manufacturing Readiness Level (MRL) or the Societal Readiness Level (SRL), to name a few.
Expert tip: In parallel to the TRL scale, make sure to create a Business Plan with clear marketing strategies and customer analysis.
Guide to correctly assess your TRL for your proposal
Make sure you fully understand the TRL concept and its scales (but by this point in the article, you should have a clear vision of what it is!), and how it applies to your project.
Start by defining the problem, establish a clear problem statement that defines the challenge your technology is trying to solve, and the scope of your project. This will help to contextualise your project and make it easier to demonstrate how it will advance the technology from one TRL level to the next.
Describe your technology. Provide a detailed description of your technology, including its current TRL level and how it works. You should also explain how your technology is different from existing solutions and what advantages it offers.
Identify the gap between the current TRL level of your technology and the desired end goal. This will help to demonstrate the need for your project and how it will advance the technology to the desired outcome and TRL level.
Define measurable quality goals and outline the criteria for assessing whether those goals have been achieved. Identify all the relevant stakeholders for your project such as team members, customers and any other person with an interest in the project to make sure that your technology will respond to all of these stakeholders’ needs and expectations.
Provide evidence to support your claims about the effectiveness of your technology.This could include data from previous trials, case studies, or other relevant research.
Adopt a flexible approach to TRL. While the TRL scale aims to offer a standardised approach for comparing and conveying the state of different technologies and estimating risks, like all measures it has its limitations. The TRL scale is not fool proof, it can change according to different contexts, disciplines and how people interpret and define each level.
As a result, we advise that you keep in mind these constraints, and adopt an agile approach to determining the current TRL level of your project. Indeed, Technologies change over time, and according to different fields, so here are a few suggestions to keep up to date with the Technological Readiness Level in your domain:
Keep informed: Attend relevant Events and Webinars linked to your technology, engage in networking with people in the sector and monitor relevant news and press releases
Keep track of information: on new innovations, trends and developments of a technology, changes in regulation, market, user feedback on existing innovation
Staying up to date on latest developments and the ecosystem of your innovation will permit you to learn more from other experiences so you may incorporate them into your technology andTRL assessment.
Technology Readiness Level and Horizon Europe
The EU provides funding programs for research and innovation such as Horizon Europe, in which the TRL plays an essential role, and needs to be specified and demonstrated in project proposals.
The Horizon Europe program has allocated around €95.5 billion in funding for 2021-2027, making it one of the world's largest research and innovation funding programs. The TRL scale is used to help align applicant expectations with call topics, gives an idea of current research maturity level to applicants and determines project eligibility.
The TRL concept is relevant for Horizon Europe’s Pillars 2 and 3. For Pillar 2, it is used to differentiate between Research and Innovation Actions (RIA) that require lower maturity/TRL and Innovation Actions at a higher maturity/TRL requirement.
In the EIC programs in Horizon Europe’s Pillar 3 which is focused on innovation, TRL requirements are included in the different calls for the EIC grants:
Pathfinder: For early-stage technological development of TRL 1 to 4, grant aiming to provide support to further research and develop an emerging breakthrough technology.
Transition: To help technologies in phases beyond proof of principle at TRL 3 or 4 to develop and validate its feasibility for an outcome TRL of 5 -6.
Accelerator: For innovations at a minimum TRL 5-6 up to 8, to help scale-up and introduce the innovation to the market.
Evaluators of calls in Horizon Europe will take into account the TRL requirements when scoring your proposal, so you need to be able to effectively demonstrate your innovation’s TRL level in your project proposal and meet the TRL requirements of the call you are applying for. The proposal submitted should include specific content to prove the project is at the TRL you claim to have.
The key takeaways
As a standardised metric, TRLs provide a valuable tool for assessing the status of technology development programs and communicating progress to stakeholders. For EU funding applicants, understanding the TRL system is essential. The TRL serves as a standard framework for evaluating the maturity of technologies that are submitted for funding, ensuring that projects that receive funding have a high potential for success. With funding programs such as the Horizon Europe R&I program, TRLs are integrated as eligibility requirements.
While the TRL system has its limitations, it provides a common language for stakeholders in both the private and public sectors. This promotes collaboration and facilitates decision-making processes throughout the innovation lifecycle. By allowing risks to be anticipated in earlier stages, the TRL system also helps to reduce risks and increase success rate.
In conclusion, understanding the TRL system is crucial for securing EU funding and bringing innovative ideas to life. By correctly estimating the TRL of your innovation in your proposal, you can improve your chances of receiving funding and moving your project forward. So, take the time to fully grasp the concept of TRLs and use them to your advantage in your next funding application.
This article is written by our valued partner Futuro Perfecto.