The Incumbent’s Deep Tech Strategy Playbook

By taking a three-step approach to engaging with deep-tech ecosystems, incumbent companies can remain competitive, drive innovation, and create commercially valuable offerings.

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Deep tech — the innovative use of emerging physical technologies enabled by digital technologies to solve large-scale problems — has the potential to create transformative growth opportunities for businesses. By tapping into these advanced technologies, leaders are better positioned to address large-scale problems and reshape entire markets. Consider the impact of synthetic biology; by 2030, this rapidly advancing field could affect industries that account for as much as 30% of global gross domestic product.

In the pharmaceutical industry, the disruptive power of deep tech is evident in the development of mRNA vaccines. Through decades of government-funded research, academic ingenuity, and backing from venture capitalists and accelerators, mRNA technology gradually emerged as a groundbreaking innovation. However, it took medical urgency and the strategic involvement and operational support of established companies such as Pfizer to usher in an mRNA-based vaccine at scale and enable its commercial success. Partnering in 2018 with BioNTech, a spinoff of Mainz University that had been founded a decade earlier, Pfizer played a critical role in developing the record-profit-making COVID-19 vaccine.

But the disproportionate coverage of deep-tech successes masks many failed attempts in commercializing them. For every Pfizer, there are cautionary tales from other well-known health care giants. Clearly, the tectonic changes caused by deep tech compel executives across industries to come to grips with the underlying technologies right away and identify the right engagement models. Striking the right balance is critical: Investing in deep tech too early can be counterproductive, but delaying too long or choosing the wrong approach can be detrimental.

To help executives at incumbent companies identify and execute their deep-tech engagement strategies, we’ve developed a three-step deep-tech playbook. This framework puts a system behind the questions we hear from companies looking to engage with the deep-tech ecosystem. It is based on our experience in deep-tech client work, discussions with executives, observations of industry dynamics, and academic research.

Investing in deep tech too early can be counterproductive, but delaying too long or choosing the wrong approach can be detrimental.

Steps 1 and 2 introduce the two key dimensions influencing the choice of deep-tech strategy — urgency to act on challenges, and the innovation momentum of the surrounding ecosystem — along with guidance for executives on assessing those factors in their business context.



The authors would like to thank Maxime Courtaux for his contribution.

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