Amid the challenges facing deep-tech start-ups, Cork’s Republic of Work recently hosted an event to help develop a deep-tech community in Ireland.
With a strong ecosystem of universities and various multinationals, Ireland has a growing number of deep tech start-ups under its belt.
A 2021 article by Insider said Ireland has the potential to become a “deep-tech powerhouse”. This sector involves companies that apply a novel scientific or engineering breakthrough to create a new product, with examples in medtech, AI, synthetic biology and more.
But despite Ireland’s ability to attract international investment for start-ups, deep-tech companies have unique challenges when starting off, such as difficulty in attracting investor interest and a longer route to get their products to market.
To help address the gaps in Ireland’s deep-tech sector, Cork’s Republic of Work recently held a networking event to bring various stakeholders together.
The event – called Deep Tech Fest – aimed to map out and develop opportunities for deep-tech investment and explore ways to improve market access and business development activities.
Republic of Work programme manager Eshna Gogia told SiliconRepublic.com that the event also aimed to help develop a deep-tech community in Ireland. She said the co-working hub has held various discussions with deep-tech start-ups and found that the sector is “fragmented”.
“So if you’re a medtech company, you’d be most likely based in Galway, or if you are an AI company it’s very likely you’re spinning out of UCD or one of those places, and there is no sort of common place for all the peers to come together and share their journey or where they feel the challenges and barriers are,” Gogia said.
“There is a community piece or community element missing for every entrepreneur that hopes to bring their tech from lab to market. So I feel the way we curated the whole day was to kind of support all elements of the community.”
Gogia also said the event served as a way to “shine a light on Ireland as an innovation hub” and to recognise deep-tech companies that don’t get the same attention as others.
For example, she believes Ireland is known globally for its medtech sector, but that we also have strong start-ups in areas such as synthetic biology and photonics.
“So we kind of need to recognise all the other areas that we’re really doing good in, but don’t speak enough about.”
Deirdre Glenn, the commercialisation director of Enterprise Ireland, praised the event and said there’s more to be done to showcase “the national innovation system” and the work that’s being done to create deep-tech companies that can compete “on a global scale”.
“The beauty about Ireland is that we’re a very integrated ecosystem,” Glenn said. “So it’s really much easier to get your brilliant research scientists together with the industry community, the VC community and the business community around any agenda”.
Last December, Enterprise Ireland hosted its 14th annual Big Ideas event to highlight how deep-tech companies from research backgrounds are making an impact in Ireland.
The challenges for deep-tech start-ups
One of the keynote speakers at the event was Sean Ward, a member of the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and an experienced deep-tech entrepreneur.
In 2011, Ward founded Synthace, a life sciences cloud software company designed to help scientists innovate with a no-code R&D platform.
Ward spoke at the event on the journey required to build a deep-tech company. Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com, he said two of the challenges many deep-tech start-ups face is around securing funding and the fact they’re working on something new.
“You’re often still tackling a degree of science risk, although ideally, you will have done work in an academic setting or partnered with an academic collaborator to be able to take on a lot of the science risk,” Ward said.
“Often the science risk requires a substantial investment in capital equipment to be able to deal with, whether that’s lab facilities or specialist equipment in the semiconductor industry.
“To get out the gate as a start-up, if you need to drop €1m in hardware to be able to do your work, that’s quite an obstacle compared to building a software business where you need a MacBook Pro and a coffee shop,” Ward said.
Issues around deep techs securing funding for their products has been raised before. At Future Human 2022, Prof Catherine Welch of Trinity’s Business School said it can sometimes take decades for these companies to get an innovation to market.
Welch also said the best way for deep-tech companies to handle risks in the sector is to “learn from those who have been there and done that before”.
The funding issue has also been noted across Europe. In January, a report found that start-ups within Europe’s deep-tech sector raised $17.7bn in 2022, which was strong compared to other sectors but lagged far behind the US in terms of investment.
Last May, a joint report by the European Patent Office and the European Investment Bank said a lack of access to finance and skilled talent were key reasons the EU’s deep-tech businesses lag behind their US counterparts.
Ward said the differences in funding can lead to some European deep techs forming “complicated hybrid structures”, where the founding team relocates to the US but keeps its research teams in Europe to “take advantage of the assets in each place”.
“The quality of talent is normally very, very high in Europe,” Ward said. “And I would agree the same with all the people I met in Cork.
“But it takes talent, it takes ideas and it takes capital, all of those coming together to bridge the gap with these world-changing innovations.”
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