The ‘deep-tech’ trend: what is the future of hardware start-ups?
Modern ventures are not just guys making a piece of kit in a garage for fun – but advanced, cohesive teams of like-minded people building market-ready products to solve specific customer problems
There is a new reality emerging in venture investments, and it is not virtual or augmented – it is start-ups building real products. Dr Peter Dudin, chief business development officer of EnCata, talks about a new trend favouring investments in the internet of things (IoT) and other hardware start-ups.
Modern deep-tech start-ups are not just guys making a piece of hardware in a garage for fun. These are advanced, cohesive teams of like-minded people who are building market-ready products to solve specific customer problems.
They are using dedicated hardware designs with core technologies (IP) transferred from research labs and seamlessly integrated with cloud software.
Today, IoT-connected hardware devices using core scientific technologies and fairly complex built-in software are one example of the trend in favour of hardware. Mobile applications and services are no longer in fashion, with competition high and barriers to market entry low.
This new trend has deep-tech start-ups implementing fundamental IP in hardware devices as the main competitive advantage. Deep-tech hardware start-ups are about scientists, and hardware and software engineers, teaming up to disrupt old industries and change market rules.
Such start-up teams are able to resolve R&D problems, pivot when needed, and transition from lab-scale technology to mass production and technology-as-a-service (TaaS) business models.
Deep-tech start-ups are inherently hardware-focused, which is not surprising since scientific advances are usually embodied in new hardware products or advanced materials.
Many projects, however, do not reach the market because scientists and developers are not always also talented entrepreneurs. Moreover, the process of raising funds to transition a hardware product from R&D to a commercial-scale product with stable revenue often becomes an intractable challenge, otherwise called the “valley of death”.
Unfortunately, today, the venture capital model does not align well with the capital-intensive nature of hardware investments.
What you need to know about investments in deep-tech start-ups
Start-up investments can be divided into three main stages.
A start-up at the pre-seed stage has only a laboratory technology or concept. Investments are necessary to finish R&D and demonstrate the technology at lab scale. Professional investors rarely invest at this stage.
Therefore, a start-up should count on friends and family, savings, grants and angel investors (who, at this stage, are very difficult to find). Pre-seed investments are typically in the range of $150,000 to $300,000.
Here the start-up’s focus is on engineering a pre-production prototype with working software, filing patents to protect core technologies and launching limited batch production.
While some start-ups can use crowdfunding (such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo) to demonstrate first sales and/or test market demand, crowdfunding is typically not available for deep-tech start-ups because of their focus on industrial applications and B2B solutions, which are capital-intensive.
Start-ups should be actively searching for professional investors at the seed stage who recognise the new trend in favour of hardware investments.
Hubs exist in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Shenzhen, Berlin and other locations with investors willing to invest in hardware and deep-tech start-ups.
Venture investors typically invest from $1m to $5m at the seed stage. Success is measured by finding the right product market fit and achieving pre-market launch sales. If all goes well, start-ups begin to hire additional staff to meet growing customer demand and ready their product for commercial-scale production and sales.
Scaling stage – series A and B rounds
At this stage the start-up has achieved a market launch but needs to invest substantially more capital in marketing, sales and inventory to meet customer demand. Venture capital firms (such as Sequoia Capitaland NEA) and emerging IP capital firms with a model focused on hardware investments (Cote Capital) are engaged in investing in scaling start-ups at this stage.
Alternatively, deep-tech start-ups may at this stage be purchased by a large corporation – Google, IBM, Walmart, Nestlé, Facebook or Boeing, for example – with a strategic need for the start-up’s IP and the team’s deep expertise.
Why do large corporations prefer M&A over in-house development? Low appetite for risk among C-suite managers for the uncertainty present in developing new technologies is one reason. Another motivation is the size of the market opportunity that a start-up offers for the acquirer’s well-established sales and distribution network.
Such M&A deals (at seed and series A or B rounds) are typically in the range of $10m to $80m, with the internal development cost a lower boundary in value and the perceived market opportunity and timing advantage over competitors an upper boundary.
How to find a good start-up investment? This is both a complex and simple question. We typically look for three main factors:
A professional team
Competent specialists, who truly believe in the company, demonstrate good character (high integrity, faith, resilience, creativity) and have the emotional intelligence to see challenges as an opportunity, not roadblocks. Being an entrepreneur is an epic journey.
Is the IP really proven, working and a true competitive advantage?
The product should solve an existing problem in a large addressable market or make a business and/or industrial process more efficient. Also, the start-up must demonstrate the product’s market fit either through customer pilots or first sales. Speaking about promising business models, one should have a “moat” principle in mind – having a competitive IP edge for long enough to deliver an appropriate return on investment.
- Subscription-based models where start-ups connect clients to their ecosystem
This business model is extremely favourable to investors because it offers a more predictable future. Whether you are a new software-based platform, or a satellite-launch service, customers often persist for years.
- Unique technology
Possessing IP that no one else has provides a timing advantage over market competitors (remember, R&D is a long and expensive process).
With the new trend in favour of deep-tech start-ups, we are witnessing a fundamental shift in how we invest in emerging companies, taking us full circle from historical trends in favour of hardware to software, and back again to hardware – this time for dedicated applications as the cost of hardware has lowered to enable deep-tech start-ups to take advantage of the higher performance inherent in application-specific hardware.
With deep-tech start-ups starting to commercialise science in hardware devices, it is getting real again.