What happens when you bring some of the world’s most forward-thinking problem solvers to sit around one single virtual table and share experiences, collaborate ideas and learn from seasoned leaders? Big solutions to some of our greatest challenges start to come to light.
The Deep Tech Connect Summit, hosted June 22-25 by BMNT Inc. and its enterprise accelerator H4XLabs, focused on four key challenge areas of our time: energy, aerospace, oceans, and ways to effectively pitch dual-use ideas in Deep Technology to investors.
“This session is a natural extension of our desire to connect people, ideas, problems and technologies and curate those opportunities to accelerate a solution to really hard problems,” said BMNT CEO Pete Newell as he opened the event.
The Summit welcomed broad and unique insights from leading investors, innovators, doers, dreamers and thinkers, all with a common focus: make a positive stamp on the world. The event aimed to offer specialized insight and support for deep tech company founders tackling hard problems, from concept through product deployment and scaling. (Videos from the event are here.)
In an opening fireside chat, Steve Blank, the adjunct professor at Stanford University known as the father of modern entrepreneurship, explained why investing in startups developing and deploying the next generation of technologies is critical: “The DoD is operating like General Motors, but China's operating like Silicon Valley. We need to catch up by accelerating the startups that are tackling commercial challenges but also address national security problems.
“The technologies the DoD needs to keep the peace and win the next war are no longer owned by the primes. AI, machine learning autonomy, commercial access to space, biotech, quantum, etc. -- most of these are being driven by commercial companies. That's never happened in the history of the Department of Defense. And yet our requirements, budgeting and acquisition systems are built on cycles that say, ‘No, no, we own all the technology.’ And by the way, the cycle time of going from a requirement to actually putting stuff in the field in five years, that's more than fine.’ Well, if you're an entrepreneur and still value startups in that time, your technology has gone through multiple cycles. The DoD is just not built to deal with those cycles, so there's a huge impedance match.”
Other talks and panels that followed throughout the four-day event built on Blank’s insights, offering a look at advanced energy technologies, the problem of increasing energy demeans on limited resources, advancements in the aerospace industry, challenges facing the blue economy and how to get funding for deep-tech ventures.
Massimo Portincaso, chairman of event partner HelloTomorrow, explained, “Deep tech is more an approach toward innovation than it is about a specific technology. Ultimately what we have is a new approach that allows us to go for fundamental innovation, amplifying and broadening the option space by collapsing the time.”
Here’s are some other highlights from the Deep Tech Connect Summit:
Day 1: Energy
Dr. Vanessa Chan, Chief Commercialization Officer at the Department of Energy gave an overview of the state of the energy industry from a federal perspective. She outlined the Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) program, which promotes regional innovation hubs by supporting incubators and accelerators in regional engagement and tech development.
Speaking on an Energy Perspectives with Sorin Grama, CEO & Founder of Transaera; and Chris Smith, Partner at Energy Innovation Capital; Matt Price, President of Activate, observed, “The most underutilized resource is the intellectual capital of our country. Our whole origin was in too many people thinking about software and apps, and not enough people thinking about how to solve real problems. And that’s what we want to go out and solve for.”
Speaking on a panel about the transition to a new energy economy, Nicolaus A. Radford, Founder, President & CEO, Houston Mechatronics, said, “At the end of the day, especially in the context of new energy, this is a physical world. And if we overlook that fact, and we’re trying to actually DO anything, we need to build some things. There’s been so much emphasis on pure software. We’re going to do the world a real disservice if we neglect the fact that not everything can be a digital app. We have to remind ourselves that venture capital was inspired by the hardware side of things, and we need to get back to our roots.”
Day 2: Aerospace
Jenn Gustetic, director of early stage innovations and partnerships for NASA gave an overview of aerospace industry priorities and investment endeavors within NASA and the full space ecosystem. She highlighted examples of NASA-funded innovations across the technology spectrum that have accomplished groundbreaking feats, and shared entry points for small businesses and investors to realize the full scope of opportunities within NASA programs.
Focusing on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program that awards over $200 million annually to small businesses and entrepreneurs, Gustetic explained, “Even though SBIR sits technically within the Space Technology Mission Directorate, it really is tied to everything NASA does. There are topics ranging from science to aeronautics, to human exploration within the annual solicitation and we support technologies across the entire domain of NASA interests.”
Gabe Mounce, Director at Space Force Accelerator, talked about leveraging the commercial sector in the aerospace industry. While his role is to provide funding for companies to collaborate with the government, that is not his only priority.
“We want the companies we work with to stay focused on the commercial market, because the way our commercial system works, especially in the U.S, it naturally grows companies in the appropriate way and we don't want to disrupt that. We don't want to steer them toward our mission only, but we do want them to be aware of what we are working on so when they do become a mature company it is easier to work together because they would now know what we’ve been struggling with on the problem side,” he said.
Day 3: Blue Economy
With the health of our oceans one of the most dire emergencies facing the earth today, Erika Montague, Chief Technologist at Schmidt MarineGaps and Yi Chao, President & CEO of Seatrec Ltd., discussed the critical importance of educating and training the next generation workforce on the blue economy to ensure the field to thrive.
Chris Moran, executive director and general manager of Lockheed Martin Ventures, explained a common challenge in the industry: “There are a lot of companies now trying to get started in this space. And once again, it comes back to economics. This work is really important for the environment and for the climate, but still the business for funding hasn't occurred yet. The biggest buyer of this type of data is still the government. And so the government's going to drive a lot of these programs. That's the challenge all blue tech innovators face; that everyone sees the impact of what losing the oceans would be, but right now, the economic models haven't developed to drive a lot of money into that space to drive new startups. So it is going to be government-driven for the most part for the foreseeable future.”
During an “Ask Me Anything” exchange, Jesse Gipe, Pacific-South Regional Director at NSIN, highlighted the work of the national Hacking for Defense® academic program to grow innovations that address critical real-world problems, including those in our oceans.
“Talent attraction comes down to giving people an opportunity to work on meaningful problems and apply their skill sets,” Gipe said.
Day 4: Funding
The Summit’s final day culminated with insights into fundraising and growth strategies.
Swati Chaturvedi, Founder & CEO at Propel(x), suggested three key strategies for getting fast, early revenue: build strategic relationships early; acquire the first customer as early as possible; and tap alternative sources of capital to reduce risk.
She also had this advice for founders: “Fundraising, like sales, is nothing but discipline and numbers. Have a very thick skin and keep writing to people for at least four tries before you give up.”
And Max Kolarich, CPO at DifferentFunds furthered the importance of a confident approach to building an early startup: “What I what I like to tell founders is, it is great that you're talking to super senior people from leading global organizations like Google or Amazon, but in addition to you trying to pull this amazingly experienced human being in, you're also giving that person the opportunity to be part of an exciting and potentially lucrative and globally changing journey that you are leading. It may be difficult to really pull that off authentically, but it is something to think about. There are a lot of senior experienced folks looking to either go back to the startup world, or are unsatisfied with the bureaucracies in their mid- to large-stage businesses and want to make a bigger impact or take a bigger swing. Don't discount your ability to pull in great people at the earliest stages of your company. You're doing something amazing. They should be honored to work with you.”
More insights from the event to follow in subsequent posts. Watch all the talks and panel discussions from the Deep Tech Connect Summit, on the BMNT YouTube page here.