What does it take to bring new, fundamental technologies to market?
We sat down with Garrett Winther of venture platform Newlab to discuss how to get planet-saving ideas out of the lab and into the real world.
In the pages of PhDs and the minds of entrepreneurs and scientists, there are scientific ideas that could change the world. And the process of turning these ideas into a commercial business is the task of an area of the startup landscape called ‘deep tech’.
Garrett Winther is Head of Startups and Venture at Newlab, a venture platform that provides young science-based businesses not only with high-risk capital, but also access to infrastructure, workspaces, industry and government partnerships, and specialist expertise.
Through its work with over 300 startups, Newlab has gained invaluable insight into the whole deep tech space, so we were keen to pick Garrett’s brain to find out how we can scale the fundamental technologies we need to deliver decarbonisation. From our wide-ranging discussion, we’ve picked three key takeaways.
1. Target the big problems
Identifying solutions to the most important challenges the world faces is essential, and Garrett highlights that Newlab looks for the “things that are just emerging.”
So, what are these opportunities? The first area Newlab is interested in is alternative fuels – specifically hydrogen and hydrogen infrastructure. “There’s a lot of very interesting things that I would say nobody quite understands or sees yet, where the dynamics are going to shift pretty quickly,” Garrett explains. “We’re also really excited about biomaterials and other material alternatives,” he adds.
Another area where Newlab likes to play is in decentralised grids. “We’re in a position today with our energy, where it’s like our circulatory system: you have your heart and it pushes the blood through your veins and arteries,” Garrett told us. “But now we’re putting solar and random distributed energy resources everywhere, and it’s the equivalent of taking the heart out of your chest, putting it in your fingertips, and assuming that everything will flow in the same way.”
In practice, Newlab is looking at load management systems as well as new distribution technologies, new types of wires, and new transformers. “Ultimately, if you want to get to a 50 per cent renewable mix or a mass renewable mix, you have to start rebuilding the grid at both a local level and a macro level.” he explains.
2. Embrace community and collaboration
Newlab offers the startups it works with access to shared facilities and equipment, and with so many companies under the same roof, it would be natural to suspect that there would be friction between those working in the same space. Garrett claims that the opposite is true.
“Six years ago there was a big explosion in electric bikes and scooters. We had four of those companies in the building – actually I think it was five!” he explains. “The first question people asked us is how do they not compete with each other? They should all hate each other, put black boxes around their products, or steal from each other. That’s the initial assumption.”
“The reality is that they started sitting next to each other, unbeknownst to us. They would say ‘hey, you’re putting in your battery management system upside down’, or ‘hey I just switched my supplier in Taiwan over to China.’”
“We started asking the question why, and they told us that they get more value helping each other than the negative effects of competing with each other. It’s a brand-new market, it’s a brand-new space, we’re all fighting the same fight of bringing clean mobility into the world. We’d love to be multi-billion-dollar companies doing corporate espionage against each other, but the market doesn’t exist yet.”
3. technology alone isn’t enough
One thing that Garrett is keen to stress is that: “deep tech isn’t purely about scientific funding – it’s more about the full commercial package that sits around the engineering and scientific innovation.” And one area of innovation that really underlines this point is the circular economy.
“We’ve invested in and worked with quite a number of circular-orientated startups, and the unique thing about circularity is that you need to find all the bits of the system,” Garrett explains. “That, usually, is where these circular systems fall apart – they either can’t get the scale, or they can’t get the whole reverse supply chain and value chain in place.”
To tackle this problem, Newlab is working with the government of Puerto Rico, an island struggling to manage its waste streams. Looking across the whole waste value chain, Newlab is putting together all the pieces of the system, including commercial offtakers and logistics systems.
“Then what we do is we take a startup that needs all those other partners, and we inject them into the system,” Garrett explains.
“For example, there’s a lot of seaweed that’s building up across the island and we’re able to go and build a value chain for that and inject a startup at the end that is making renewable plastics with seaweed as their raw material.”
In Garrett’s opinion “It’s almost like people assume technology is going to unlock circularity, but the reality is that it’s more a systems, relationships, and economics objective than it is a technology one.”
So, what are the prospects for the deep tech market? Amid the ‘boom and bust’ cycle of the wider venture capital market, Garrett highlights that deep tech: “keeps chugging along.” As a result, he predicts that it will become attractive for a diverse range of investors.
“I think we’re going to see more and more people transition to deep tech that we weren’t expecting. They’ll start with the slightly easier hardware stuff, and then eventually make their way down to the PhDs and the white papers.”
Written By: Matthew Hempstead
5th February 2024