I spent over a decade in the startup world without coming across the term deeptech. That’s funny because now it’s everywhere I turn (not to mention in my job title). Which got me thinking about the language we use to describe technology.
Putting a man on the moon was the defining technological achievement of my parents generation. Thus everything from freeze dried food to ball point pens was marketed as space-tech.
Then when I grew up, high-tech was the thing.
It evoked glimmering glass-and-steel high rises, limitless optimism, Star Wars, Knight Rider and Back to the Future. To a very large extent it was hardware based; fond memories of early cell phones, portable music players and cassette based video games come to mind. The term simply catches everything that felt good about the 80’s and early 90’s, and it seemed obvious why high-tech had gotten its moniker; it was advanced and shiny, elevated, like it represented a superior civilisation.
But then culture shifted and almost imperceptibly we lost our collective infatuation with the idea of high-tech.
Instead came an age where tech became synonymous with speed. Empires were spawned overnight and entrepreneurs got filthy rich just as abruptly. Facebook wanted to ”move fast and break things”. It was the era of disruption, and its cultural impact stretched far beyond the burst of the IT bubble. It was code-centric and Internet was the dominant carrier wave.
This need-for-speed culture provoked a strong cross-current, which interestingly manifested most clearly among technologists. They were people who loved tech, but wanted it to slow down. Coders away from the keyboard tinkering with artfully converted camper vans; welding hand made fixie bikes; building their own tube amps, or brewing the perfect cup of coffee with their all manual espresso machines.
As these waves began to ebb, deeptech started gaining momentum in their wake.
When the term initially popped up on Wikipedia, the article about it said that a certain (French) venture capitalist had coined it. That factoid has now been edited away, but it would make sense, because one way of thinking about deeptech is: it’s the kind of tech that takes extraordinarily deep pockets to fund. So much so in fact, that pretty much every technology that qualifies – from the semiconductor to AI, CRISPR, fusion power, quantum computer and aforementioned space program – have been funded with tax payers money.
Whoever picks up the bill for it, deeptech is a class of technologies with high potential impact, that require our patience to reach the market.
I like to think of the deep prefix in terms of the lengthy gestation periods that are required. The central know-how leading up to important breakthroughs have often been developing for decades.
Just think of the contrarian computer scientists who toiled through the AI-winters of the 70’s and 80’s, never giving up on the promise of neural networks, even when being laughed at by more successful peers pursuing incremental progress within the dominant paradigm of rule-based systems. Or think of the even longer marathon of getting fusion power right, with its many disappointing false starts.
Sometimes I also think of it in terms of the kind of deeply rooted neural pathways that needs to form in an individuals brain whenever he or she takes on a demanding task. To give an example: I’ve been studying Japanese now for close to one thousand days straight. On a conscious level it feels futile, like I master almost nothing. But then I’m starting to have these flashes when complicated sentences just makes immediate effortless sense. Something obviously been going on at a deeper level.
It’s an immense privilege to get to work with scientists and inventors in the field of deeptech. Their ideas can come in many shapes, building on everything from mastering new types of materials to novel takes on algorithms. The one thing they have in common though, is a deeply felt commitment to making a real and meaningful contribution. Maybe in the end, that is the trues way of understanding what we talk about when we talk about deeptech.