The rapid pace of technology innovation and applications in recent decades — you could argue that just about every kind of business is a “tech” business these days — has spawned a sea of tech startups and larger businesses that are focused on serving that market, and equally demanding consumers, on a daily basis. Today, a venture capital firm in the UK is announcing a fund aimed at helping to grow the technologies that will underpin a lot of those daily applications.
Cambridge-based IQ Capital is raising £125 million ($165 million) that it will use specifically to back UK startups that are building “deep tech” — the layer of research and development, and potentially commercialised technology, that is considered foundational to how a lot of technology will work in the years and decades to come. So far, some £92 million has been secured, and partner Kerry Baldwin said that the rest is coming “without question” — pointing to strong demand.
There was a time when it was more challenging to raise money for very early stage companies working at the cusp of new technologies, even more so in smaller tech ecosystems like the UK’s. As Ed Stacey, another partner in the firm acknowledges, there is often a very high risk of failure at even more stages of the process, with the tech in some cases not even fully developed, let alone rolled out to see what kind of commercial interest there might be in the product.
However, there has been a clear shift in the last several years.
There a lot more money floating around in tech these days — so much so that it’s created a stronger demand for projects to invest in. (Another consequence of that is that when you do get a promising startup, funds are potentially giving them hundreds of millions and causing other disruptions in how they grow and exit, which is another story…)
And while there are definitely a lot of startups out there in the world today, a lot of them are what you might describe as “me too”, or at least making something that is easily replicated by another startup, making the returns and the wins harder to find among them.
A new focus that we are seeing on “deep tech” is a consequence of both of those trends.
“The low-hanging fruit has been discovered… Shallow tech is a solved problem,” Stacey said, in reference to areas like the basics of e-commerce services and mobile apps. “These are easy to build with open source components, for example. It’s shallow when it can be copied very quickly.”
In contrast, deep tech is “by definition is something that can’t easily be copied,” he continued. “The underlying algorithm is deep, with computational complexity.”
But the challenges run deep in deep tech: not only might a product or technology never come together, or find a customer, but it might face problems scaling if it does take off. IQ Capital’s focus on deep tech is coupled with the company trying to determine which ideas will scale, not just work or find a customer. As we see more deep tech companies emerging and growing, I’m guessing scalability will become an ever more prominent factor in deciding whether a startup gets backing.
IQ Capital’s investments to date span areas like security (Privitar), marketing tech (Grapeshot, which was acquired by Oracle earlier this year), AI (such as speech recognition API developer Speechmatics) and biotechnology (Fluidic Analytics, which measures protein concentrations), all areas that will be the focus of this fund, along with IoT and other emerging technologies and gaps in the current market.
IQ Capital is not the only fund starting to focus on deep tech, nor is its portfolio the only range of startups focusing on this (Allegro.AI and deep-learning chipmaker Hailo are others, to name just two).
LPs in this latest fund include family offices, wealth managers, tech entrepreneurs and CEOs from IQ’s previous investments, as well as British Business Investments, the commercial arm of the British Business Bank, the firm said.