Deep Tech Innovations: Solving the World’s Greatest Challenges

Various deep technology innovations solving current global issues such as renewable energy, agricultural output and clean water.
Solving current global challenges will require innovative science and engineering solutions.

It’s fair to say that each new day brings a different technological innovation to the world. In the limelight: new software, apps, devices, and automation. But beyond these well-marketed applications are newly emerging technologies — and they’re no less transformative.

Welcome to deep tech — also known as hard tech, tough tech, or real tech. Deep tech harnesses advances in science and engineering to address the world’s most pressing challenges. In realms that include disease treatment, renewable energy development, food and water security, and more, deep tech enables an ambitious agenda of societal reinvention and change.

Neither widely seen nor understood, deep tech is already transforming the way we go about our lives and work. For example, farms have been revolutionized by Pivot Bio’s nitrogen-producing microbial fertilizer, which eliminates the need for destructive synthetic nitrogen. Dinner tables have been reimagined by Beyond Meat’s radical approach to bioprocessing, manufacturing, and meat itself. Consider your own driveway: ChargePoint’s electric vehicle charging system is a remarkable development for Teslas and other environmentally friendly vehicles.

This head-turning technology is everywhere we look — and beyond. What is deep tech, exactly, and what puts these technologies into a class of their own? Here, we provide an overview and illustrative examples — including some you may have experienced first-hand without realizing it.

What makes deep tech so “deep”?

For the most part, apps and other software can be created by small teams, and in relatively short development cycles. In contrast, deep tech is far more complex, involves significant research and development (R&D), and stems from engineering or scientific discoveries. Deep tech can take countless forms, but the characteristics that best distinguish these innovations from traditional tech ventures include:

  • Greater transformative innovation. Deep tech enterprises introduce or radically redefine technology, creating or reshaping markets. Traditional tech ventures, on the other hand, prioritize business-model-level transformation, making minor adjustments to or building upon established technologies.
  • Longer research and development. Designing groundbreaking technologies involves many complex variables. Most deep tech companies operate at the intersection of two or more technologies, such as virtual reality, robotics, and cybersecurity. To maximize the potential for go-to-market success, deep tech ventures must conduct thorough research, testing, and iterations, as well as several rounds of prototyping — far more than what’s required of traditional tech start-ups.
  • Higher risk. Breakthrough ideas require significant time and funding. Traditional tech ventures tend to prioritize market risk — that is, risk that largely depends on business model viability. Deep tech companies, on the other hand, might spend years — and sometimes more than a decade — working on fundamental technologies before they can get to the market proposition.

Who drives the development of deep tech?

Deep tech breakthroughs are truly a team effort. While standard tech ventures tend to spotlight founder stories, deep tech brings together a passionate cohort across multiple disciplines. Its starting point is usually fueled by a rich ecosystem of public and private players, including research institutes, leading universities, progressive governments, investors, and large corporations.

Academia

R&D, typically the longest stage of the process, is largely driven by academia — especially leaders in science and engineering.

More than 1,500 universities and research labs are deeply embedded in the deep tech ecosystem. Armed with the world’s most promising talent, cutting-edge facilities, and dynamic entrepreneurship programs, these tech-driven institutions regularly birth and nurture extraordinary ideas.

Academic and research institutions are keenly attuned to the power of collaboration. On a fundamental level, universities are powerful knowledge sharing hubs, introducing highly technical students and professors to those of diverse intellectual backgrounds.

Some universities are taking that concept to a new level. In 2018, the University of California, San Francisco, partnered with WeHealth, the e-health division of pharmaceutical giant Servier, to promote the development of early-stage health technology. MIT’s AgeLab works with businesses, governments, and NGOs to develop more innovative care solutions for seniors. The synergistic benefits of cross-sector collaboration are endless, equipping fledgling ideas with new centers of expertise and development pipelines.

Governments

Forward-thinking governments play a critical role in the formation of deep tech enterprise. Generally speaking, progressive leadership cultivates innovative societies by building R&D-friendly infrastructure and highly skilled workforces. In particular, governments can drive innovation through tech-friendly policies, legislation, and funding; these include grants and other assistance for research and education, tax incentives, patent and other IP protections, reduction of barriers to trade, worker training, and similar initiatives.

Currently, the U.S. government is the world’s largest investor in deep tech: it generously funds R&D programs at universities and research labs, as well as grant efforts like the Small Business Innovation Research program.

Other major players include South Korea, Singapore, China, Israel, and Australia. For these countries, deep tech innovation is a key driver of economic growth and national pride, as well as a magnet for the world’s best talent and resources.

Investors

Angel investors and venture capitalists — particularly those with extensive technical expertise — are invaluable drivers of deep tech development. These investors understand the unique risks and potential rewards of deep tech investing. In the early stages of R&D, for example, deep tech entrepreneurs are rarely able to delineate a clear path to commercialization, complicating traditional start-up valuation metrics. Further hindering evaluation is the intangibility of deep tech assets, which often center around intellectual property.

Even so, deep tech investing is on the rise.

Deep tech companies tend to host more private funding events than their traditional tech counterparts, indicating growing investor interest. Moreover, tech-driven investors may be more likely to embrace exciting new ventures within their fields, as well as provide critical guidance.

Some well-known science- and tech-oriented accelerators serve as crucial funding sources: HAX and Hello Tomorrow, for example, are accelerators that work exclusively with deep tech start-ups. Online investor match platforms, such as Propel(x), have also become valuable connection points for deep tech entrepreneurs looking for investors, and vice versa.

When deep tech succeeds, it touches millions

From conception to broad market acceptance, deep tech’s path to commercialization is relatively long and risky — a substantial investment for everyone involved. That’s why success is so rewarding: after all, its effects are tremendous, reverberating across entire markets and societies.

Autonomous vehicles: the next era of transportation

Autonomous vehicles, also known as self-driving cars, were once considered spectacles of the future. Today, thousands are being tested for everyday use, with plans to hit the road within the next decade. Though manufacturers face a wealth of obstacles — including serious safety, security, and compliance concerns — many are relatively optimistic about gaining mainstream acceptance, especially as technology continues to evolve at unprecedented velocity.

The history of self-driving machines can be traced back to the self-propelled carts of the 16th century. As societal needs evolved, autonomous vehicles came into being: major wars led to the development of self-propelled torpedoes, rudimentary autopilot systems, and drones, while a decades-long series of engineering feats resulted in cruise control, advanced radar and camera systems, and semi-autonomous vehicle control. Manufacturing giants like Tesla, one of the industry’s biggest R&D investors, are at the forefront of today’s most advanced autonomous technology.

Today, autonomous vehicles are already revolutionizing several key fields. Caterpillar, a construction and mining corporation, manufactures autonomous trucks that have already hauled more than three billion tons of potentially hazardous material. These vehicles — which operate 24/7 and obey traffic laws — have transformed the mining industry, a notoriously dangerous line of work. Last year, IBM’s AI- and solar-powered Mayflower Autonomous Ship successfully collected environmental data for global warming research and marine mammal conservation. Autonomous vehicles have also dramatically reshaped the military, saving thousands of lives by exploring dangerous territory and flying through areas with poor visibility. As R&D continues, this life-changing innovation will continue to reimagine the world’s vehicles — on the road, in the air, and underwater.

Surgical robots: from battlefields to healthcare operating suites

A few decades ago, a number of leading-edge research agencies and start-ups, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense, created the world’s first multi-purpose surgical robot. A combination of advanced cameras, computers, and robotics, this medtech breakthrough revolutionized surgical precision and flexibility. After undergoing extensive animal testing — which resulted in a series of modifications — they were eventually approved by regulatory authorities, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Originally intended to treat specialized bodily trauma on and around battlefields, surgical robots — in particular, the da Vinci surgical system — are now primarily used to perform minimally invasive surgical procedures. As their purpose evolved and popularity grew, two private corporations became major market players, later merging. Today, surgical robots are widely embraced by healthcare providers and patients alike, becoming the standard of care for minimally invasive procedures. Their presence is so ubiquitous, in fact, that they have become the centerpiece of healthcare facilities’ marketing campaigns.

The future of deep tech, powered by the bold

The world’s challenges are growing increasingly complex. The looming threat of a full-blown climate crisis, for example, necessitates a revolutionary clean energy solution — sooner rather than later. Other crises, such as today’s healthcare predicaments, will continue to mold every corner of the globe. Consider the far-reaching, life-saving impact of mRNA technology, for instance: a deep tech breakthrough founded on decades of research, it enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines in an unprecedented amount of time.

To solve these multi-faceted, expansive issues, we need stronger and more daring ideas. With the capital and guidance to support ongoing work, deep tech can achieve heretofore unimaginable breakthroughs. It eagerly pushes the boundaries of science and engineering, because pressing problems demand bold solutions. In between adventurous thinking and that life-changing stamp of consumer approval, deep tech has the potential to deliver innovation to billions.

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