June 2021 – Business Builders – the ideal early-stage Deep Tech leaders.
What is the ideal leadership profile for early-stage Deep Tech companies?
From Platform to Product
Deep Tech companies often start as research projects inside of universities, research institutes or corporates. Through painstaking research, hypotheses are tested, insights are generated, and if successful, unique intellectual property (‘IP’) and know-how are developed.
Technology and know-how from advanced science takes years to develop, often decades. The science underpinning the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, for example, that many of us have received has been in development since the 1980s. Lithium-ion batteries, upon which our phones, cars and electronics depend, were first developed in 1991, although the science underpinning them started developing in the 1970s.
Both are examples of IP-rich technologies with the potential for use across multiple applications –often referred to as ‘platform technologies.’ And when advanced research groups start to develop platform technologies, they often ‘spin out’, incorporate and become Deep Tech businesses. Most Deep Tech businesses, therefore, start as platform technology groups.
Early stage platform technology groups are exciting for their potential. How many problems do we imagine can be solved with AI, Gene Sequencing or Additive Manufacturing? But while imagining useful applications is important, it is not the same as building products or solutions – solutions that solve specific problems for a particular market at a particular price.
When platform technology groups shift into solution building – that is, when they set out to solve very specific problems for particular markets at a particular price – that is the point they become real businesses – at least in my view.
So how does a Deep Tech company make this transition?
The Business Builder
Young Deep Tech businesses are mostly made up of scientists and engineers, many of whom were part of the original research group, pre-spin out. The group’s founder & CEO will often be part of this original group. Scientifically brilliant, this group is critical to the success of the business, especially in its early days. They will have unrivalled insight into the technology stack and will often have important networks of relationships that help the business in the early days.
But this group is highly unlikely to be able to successfully transition from platform technology group through to solution-focussed business without the guidance of a Business Builder.
Business Builders are technical individuals by background, often with advanced science or engineering degrees, whose careers start within engineering and progress through to engineering/product leadership. As their careers mature, they often move into general management, including commercial roles (particularly, IP licensing and/or partnership management) and/or strategy roles. For me, the best Business Builders for early-stage Deep Tech businesses often have a blend of corporate and start-up experience.
Business Builders are critical leaders in the early stage of a company’s development. Here’s why:
- First and foremost, science and engineering cultures are familiar to them, and their experience in leading engineers is critical in bonding these young businesses. Respect is transferred from engineer to leadership and leadership to engineer faster, which is important in building aligned, action-oriented cultures.
- Secondly, Business Builders know what ‘good’ products or solutions look like and they understand the process and organisation required to build them. Critically, they also understand the time it takes to build solutions within these markets. All of these are important in navigating from ‘platform tech with potentially multiple applications’ to ‘solution building for a particular market at a particular price point’.
- Thirdly, Business Builders communicate with greater authority. Because of their experience and insight, they tend to be better at setting expectations – one of the most critical skills for building trust with industrial partners, boards and teams. The ability to set the right expectations is one of the top skills required of early-stage Deep Tech leaders.
- Finally, Business Builders are better at defining more relevant strategies for early-stage Deep Tech businesses than other types of executives. From my experience, individuals with these types of backgrounds do better at triangulating 1) external market factors with 2) company capability and 3) overall business direction than other types of executives for this stage of business.
To my mind, Business Builders make it possible for early-stage Deep Tech companies to move from ‘platform technology groups’ to ‘solution-building businesses’ more successfully than anything else. I’ll talk more about the background of Business Builders in my next post.
Of course, you may disagree. If so, I’d love to hear your counter.
In the meantime, thanks for reading. More next week.