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Synthetic intelligence: The right way to make ‘Deep Tech’ work for your small business


In early 2020, when scientists rushed to develop a vaccine to tackle the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it appeared like a very lengthy shot. The quickest a vaccine had ever beforehand been developed was for mumps, again within the Sixties—an effort that took 48 months. Nonetheless, simply 9 months later, in December 2020, the American pharmaceutical large Pfizer and a German deep-tech startup, BioNTech, had developed the primary COVID-19 vaccine, validating using the brand new know-how of mRNA-based vaccines. 

The primary research on DNA vaccines started 25 years in the past, and the science of RNA vaccines too has been evolving for over 15 years. One final result was mRNA know-how, which required the convergence of advances in artificial biology, nanotechnology, and synthetic intelligence, and has reworked the science—and the enterprise—of vaccines. Pfizer generated practically $37 billion in sales from the COVID-19 vaccine final yr, making it one of the profitable merchandise within the firm’s historical past. 

Like Pfizer and Moderna within the prescribed drugs sector, a number of firms in different industries—equivalent to Tesla in vehicles, Bayer in agrochemicals, BASF in specialty chemical compounds, Deere in agriculture equipment, and Goodyear in rubber—are counting on deep applied sciences. Deep Tech, as we name it, is the problem-driven method to tackling large, bushy, audacious, and depraved challenges by combining new bodily applied sciences, equivalent to superior materials sciences, with refined digital applied sciences, equivalent to A.I. and shortly, quantum computing. 

Deep Tech is rising to the fore due to enterprise’s urgent have to develop new merchandise quicker than earlier than; to develop sustainable merchandise and processes; and to turn into extra future-proof. Deep Tech can generate monumental worth and can present corporations with new sources of benefit. In reality, Deep Tech will disrupt incumbents in nearly each business. That’s as a result of the merchandise and processes that can end result due to these applied sciences can be transformational, creating new industries or essentially altering present ones. 

The early prototypes of Deep Tech-based merchandise are already accessible. As an example, using drones, 3-D printers, and syn-bio kits is proliferating, whereas No Code / Low Code instruments are making A.I. extra accessible. They’re opening up more avenues by which corporations can mix rising applied sciences and catalyze extra improvements. Unsurprisingly, incubators and accelerators have sprung up worldwide to facilitate their improvement. Not solely are extra Deep Tech start-ups being arrange these days, however they’re launching profitable improvements quicker than earlier than. 

It’s dangerous for CEOs of incumbent corporations to rely on a wait-and-watch technique. They should determine out methods to faucet into Deep Tech’s potential immediately earlier than their organizations are disrupted by them—simply as digital applied sciences and start-ups disrupted enterprise not so way back. Not like digital disruption, although, the physical-cum-digital nature of Deep Tech supplies a golden alternative for incumbents to form these applied sciences’ evolution and to harness them for his or her profit. 

Established giants might help Deep Tech start-ups scale their merchandise, which could be particularly advanced and expensive for bodily merchandise, by leveraging their experience in engineering and manufacturing scale-up and by offering market entry. And since the incumbents are already on the middle of world networks, they’ll additionally assist navigate authorities laws and affect their suppliers and distributors to transition to infrastructure that can assist the brand new processes and merchandise. Doing so will unlock monumental worth, because the Pfizer-BioNTech case exemplifies. 

Most incumbents will discover that Deep Tech poses two stiff challenges at first. One, it isn’t simple to identify or assess the enterprise alternatives that the brand new applied sciences will create. Two, it’s equally robust to develop and deploy Deep Tech-based options and purposes, which normally requires collaborating in and catalyzing collective actions with ecosystems. To handle the dual challenges of Deep Tech, CEOs ought to take note three beginning factors. 


Regardless of its sophistication, standard know-how forecasting produces linear predictions and siloed considering; it doesn’t account for a way applied sciences change and converge. Because of this, most forecasts underestimate the velocity at which applied sciences evolve and when enterprise will be capable of use them. That’s why corporations ought to use “backcasting,” the tactic outlined by College of Waterloo’s John Robinson within the late Nineteen Eighties. 

Fairly than monitoring the event of many applied sciences, enterprise would do higher to start out by specializing in the world’s largest wants and urgent issues, to establish the long-standing frictions and tradeoffs which have prevented it from tackling them till now. Then, they need to outline a fascinating future by which these points have been resolved, and work again to establish the applied sciences, and combos thereof, that can make options doable and commercially possible. Backcasting helps corporations come to grips with each short-term and future technological adjustments, making it superb to handle Deep Tech. 

The Anglo-American suppose tank Rethink X, as an example, has used a know-how disruption framework, predicated on backcasting, to focus on the implications of making a sustainable world. The evaluation means that the technological adjustments underneath method within the vitality, transportation, and meals sectors, pushed by a mix of simply eight rising applied sciences, might remove over 90% of internet greenhouse gasoline emissions in 15 years’ time. The identical applied sciences can even make the price of carbon withdrawal reasonably priced, so extra breakthrough applied sciences might not be wanted within the medium time period. 

Gauging change 

When corporations consider the enterprise alternatives that deep applied sciences will open up, they need to have in mind the scope of the adjustments they may result in. It is going to be decided by the complexity of a know-how and the enterprise’s means to scale options primarily based on it. As Arnulf Grubler, the pinnacle of the Austria-based Worldwide Institute for Utilized Techniques Evaluation, and his co-authors argued six years ago, new applied sciences can result in 4 ranges of change. They’ll: 

1. Enhance an present product. For instance, sustainable biodegradable plastic can substitute standard plastic packaging. 

2. Enhance an present system. Nanomaterial-infused paints and an A.I.-enabled good house system can, as an example, dramatically change properties. 

3. Rework a system. Growing the ecosystem for hydrogen-powered vehicles, from hydrogen manufacturing to refueling stations, might rework city mobility. 

4. Rework a system-of-systems. Making a purification know-how that transforms present water provide and administration techniques can even alter the working of water-consuming sectors equivalent to agriculture, alcohol, drinks, paper, and sugar. 

Determining which of the 4 ranges of change is prone to end result will assist corporations higher assess market sizes in addition to development trajectories. When BCG recently estimated the market dimension of Deep Tech options in 9 sustainability-related sectors, for instance, it discovered that whereas know-how enhancements in present worth chains would generate further revenues of over $123 billion every year, those who resulted in systemic adjustments would generate 20 instances extra. Or as a lot as $2.7 trillion a yr. 

Cultivating ecosystems 

Few corporations have already got in-house all of the applied sciences and capabilities they should deploy Deep Tech. They need to acquire the assist of technology-related ecosystems, which lengthen from lecturers and college departments to buyers and governments, to develop these competencies. The forms of linkages that can end result will rely upon the enterprise alternative in addition to the ecosystem’s maturity. 

A number of sorts of collaborations are prone to kind. Some incumbents will, clearly, be a part of palms with start-ups to develop new merchandise or processes, as Bayer did in 2017, establishing a joint venture with Ginkgo Bioworks to synthesize microbes that can enable vegetation to provide their very own fertilizers. Others will orchestrate systemic adjustments, which is what Hyundai Motor Group is making an attempt to do within the subject of mobility by working with a number of Deep Tech startups. Nonetheless others might deal with nurturing deep applied sciences to maturity themselves, akin to the efforts of Sweden’s SSAB (previously Swedish Metal), Vattenfal, and Finland’s LKAB to scale a sustainable steel-making course of by which fossil-free electrical energy and inexperienced hydrogen substitute coking coal. 


A deep know-how was not possible yesterday, is barely possible at this time, and will quickly turn into so pervasive and impactful that it is going to be troublesome to recollect life with out it, factors out Michigan State College’s Joshua Siegel. The long run will probably belong to corporations that don’t simply monitor Deep Tech, however spend money on its improvement and drive its adoption by partaking with ecosystems, forcing rivals to play the shedding technique of catch up. 

Learn other Fortune columns by François Candelon. 

François Candelon is a managing director and senior associate at BCG and world director of the BCG Henderson Institute.
Maxime Courtaux is a venture chief at BCG and ambassador on the BCG Henderson Institute.
Antoine Gourevitch is a managing director and senior associate at BCG.
John Paschkewitz is a associate and affiliate director at BCG.
Vinit Patel is a venture chief at BCG and ambassador on the BCG Henderson Institute.

Some corporations featured on this column are previous or present shoppers of BCG. 

The opinions expressed in commentary items are solely the views of their authors and don’t essentially mirror the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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