Serguei Kouzmine is Managing Partner at QWave Capital.
As the internet investment sphere becomes increasingly crowded and innovations begin to seem merely incremental, many are looking for new areas to invest in. Consumers and pundits are wondering where the “next big thing” will come from.
One area well worth considering is the world of deep science, meaning physics-, hard materials- and even quantum-based innovation. I broadly refer to this as “SciTech.”
I’m a former nuclear scientist with a Ph.D. in physics, and have spent the second half of my career building and investing in SciTech companies. It’s been inspiring to watch this space grow from one that is largely theoretical, into an arena where new, commercially-viable products are being built constantly. SciTech companies stand to disrupt entire industries ranging from medicine to computing to defense and beyond.
We are at a defining moment in the SciTech lifecycle, partially because the components of our technology are shrinking every day. Scientists believe that Moore’s Law is facing a distinct challenge as classical computers can no longer get much smaller or faster. Quantum materials could provide a solution and may force a complete paradigm shift when it comes to computing. Rather than incremental improvements in today’s hardware, we could be looking at completely different machines – ones that can do computations thousands of times faster.
On top of that, SciTech holds the power to make concepts we once thought of as merely science fiction come to life, including teleportation and cloaking (albeit on a small scale).
Unsurprisingly, SciTech is gaining national media attention. D-Wave Systems has gotten significant buzz for selling a quantum computer to Google and NASA. A handful of investment groups, including one I started last year called QWave Capital and another from RIM founder Mike Lazaridis, have also sprung up to take advantage of this exciting moment in the lifecycle of SciTech.
Of course, SciTech is a whole different ballgame from internet- and software-based technology, one with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Below you can fine what I see as the three most important differences between Internet and SciTech companies, particularly when it comes to investment.
Venture investors over the last 30 years have focused increasingly on software and Internet investments. This type of tech has a fairly low barrier to entry. Almost anyone can learn to code, and it’s not too difficult for investors to understand most of the concepts from the outside.
SciTech, on the other hand, has a very high barrier to entry for entrepreneurs, and a high, but not insurmountable, one for investors. That could explain why very few top venture capital firms today have the expertise needed to invest in SciTech. To make solid SciTech investment decisions, you must work with experienced, well-trained scientists, often professors and sometimes even Nobel laureates — something today’s Internet-focused VCs are simply not accustomed to.
Investors in the SciTech space should look for companies that are fully operational, with working products (or very late-stage prototypes); a clear market; and ideally a stream of revenue. While this may not be necessary to invest in Internet and software companies that can write a few lines of code and release to customers almost immediately, it is mandatory in the SciTech sphere.
Unlike with Internet companies, which are often funded well before there is any working product or revenue, SciTech companies are considered “unproven” until they have at least a working prototype, and preferably some revenue. This is true even at the early growth stages because they are inherently based on bleeding-edge science.
The good news is that today’s design and simulation tools allow scientists to rapidly prototype hardware and electronic devices using computer modeling, nanofabs, printed circuit board facilities, and 3D printing. Furthermore, mass manufacturing can be outsourced inexpensively to scale production up quickly. Investors no longer need to fear the long R&D lifecycle of hardware, electronics, and materials innovations. These companies will still take longer than your average Internet start-up to build a viable prototype, but they are also less of a gamble when they get there.
The talented and experienced scientists who provide necessary expertise for SciTech investments are distributed at research centers around the world, so SciTech companies are springing up in unexpected places.
For example, one of the first companies we funded is based in Indiana. This might seem surprising until you consider the company’s proximity and close relationship to Purdue University and its renowned physics department. Other cutting-edge SciTech companies are based in Geneva, Estonia, and North Carolina. The only thing these locations have in common is that brilliant scientists live there and are building great companies. Bottom line: Investing in SciTech requires thinking globally and working cross culturally.
There are a lot of factors that have contributed to make this an ideal moment for SciTech investments. For one, engineering skills today are reaching a level where they can effectively support scientists in their quest to execute scientific ideas on the manufacturing floor. Secondly, infrastructure has matured to the point where SciTech ideas can be tested and even brought to market without building entirely new manufacturing facilities, which could take months or even years. Thankfully, today, the traditional capital expenditures associated with materials science have lowered dramatically, to the point where this space has become very appealing for investors.
Of course, as explained above, building and investing in companies in the SciTech space will require more expertise, investments at a more mature growth stage, and a global mindset. Even casual observers will need to do a little extra “homework” to really begin to understand this space. However, this is clearly an area to which entrepreneurs, investors, futurists, and consumers should pay close attention. We are on the cusp of an innovation age that will be spurred on by SciTech, and now is a perfect time to get your finger on the pulse of this hot market.