We need to make atoms-based entrepreneurship cool again

A looming talent shortage

You’d be forgiven for believing, based on today’s perpetual negative news cycle, that humanity was facing a bleak future, and you wouldn’t be alone; in a 2021 Pew Research survey, 68% of Americans believe that their children will not be better off than they are. And it wasn’t just the US - with the exception of Singapore and Sweden, countries polled in Europe and Asia-Pacific had a net negative outlook on their children’s future. 

While I’m not trying to minimise the economic reality for many people, who don’t feel like their lives have improved (and in many cases haven’t - just check out the divergence in some metrics since 1971), I find myself disappointed. The rise of the internet and wide smartphone ownership makes the scientific discoveries of tomorrow, and the necessary learning to understand them, available for all today. In a world where personalised medicine and abundant clean energy is no longer restricted to the realm of scientific fiction, is our pessimism a failure of understanding or a failure of communication?

Perhaps I’ve drunk too deeply from the scientific Kool-Aid or am too optimistic about the shimmering future promised by the cutting-edge of science and technology, but I believe that future is possible in the near-term. Unfortunately, we risk undermining our ability to deliver this future unless we can encourage more people to study science and technology subjects, and move from science into impact.  In the UK alone, a recent BEIS-commissioned report predicts a UK shortfall of 380,000 researchers by 2027. We need to change the public narrative of science to be more positive - we need to make atoms-based entrepreneurship cool again. 

The future is brighter than we can even begin to imagine

Even as someone who spends all day looking at new science ventures, the pace of breakthrough innovation across the scientific landscape can be hard to digest.

Take healthcare as an example. A growing number of novel therapeutics are being developed for an increasing number of disease areas: CAR-T therapy, a type of immunotherapy, was proven to have an effect in Lupus; a breakthrough in that it successfully moved a modality that was previously only in cancer into the whole inflammation space. Breakthrough healthcare innovations are not just restricted to the few who can afford them: The development of the COVID mRNA vaccine has opened the door to other disease areas, most notably malaria, where a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford reported 80% efficacy - a major opportunity to reduce the 619,000 deaths in 2021 that largely occur in the Global South. There is also no reason to believe that CAR-T therapy may not rapidly come down the cost curve; as evidenced by the exponential decline in sequencing costs for the human genome - perhaps personalised medicine is not so far away after all.

These exponential trends are not just restricted to healthcare: The classic example of exponential progress, Moore’s Law, continues apace as chipmakers look to 3D architectures to overcome physical limitations of operating at nanoscale. In Climatetech, similar declines in the cost of solar modules have resulted in a continual under-forecast of their deployment: In 2012 the International Energy Agency expected that global solar energy generation would reach 550 terrawatt-hours in 2030. That figure was exceeded by 2018. Their mistake was in assuming linear growth. I have no reason to believe that these trends won’t continue, whether it’s in adoption of generative AI (even with increasing training costs), lab-grown meats, or carbon capture. So if we’re already living in the future, where’s all the negativity coming from?

A lack of distribution

The Golden Age of Sci-Fi in the 20s and 30s and the New Wave in the 60s and 70s, coincided with widespread adoption of refrigeration, washing machines and colour television. Scientific progress was tangible, it was widespread and it was taking place in your own home - you couldn’t avoid it! At the same time, we were landing people on the moon, using less computing power than a smartphone - something we haven’t done since.

With the exception of consumer electronics or tech, the majority of scientific research, and the scientific progress gleaned from it, is not directly consumer-facing. To find the cutting-edge, you’d have to embed yourself in a community of scientists and engineers, who largely work in private, discuss it at expensive conferences and publish in paywalled papers (although I’ll acknowledge that this is changing). This kind of progress is hard, granular, incremental and requires a deep understanding of that niche. So how can the public find out about it?

Historically this has been the responsibility of the consumer press but, with the advent of social media, media consumption has fragmented while ownership of media organisations has become more concentrated - news competition has increased. The decline of newspaper advertising revenues has seen the number of journalists decline by roughly a third in Australia between 1996 to 2016 and in the US by 23% from 2008 to 2019, with general journalists now covering science-related news and scientific specialists confined to trade/industry publications largely outside of the public domain (and often paywalled). Largely at no fault to those remaining mainstream journalists, this represents a major problem: The competing interests of real-time news, demand for high-reader dwell-time and lack of scientific understanding leads to inaccurate, sensationalist articles, often the result of exaggerated press releases and insufficient time to scrutinise them. An example of the damaging impact this can have is the poorly designed study by Andrew Wakefield on the association of the MMR vaccine and autism. While later retracted and debunked, this article has been a significant cause of vaccine scepticism in the US, which continues today. While an extreme example, the result is a significant 61% of the UK public who believe that the media sensationalises science - a real-life “boy who cried wolf”. 

It’s clear that scientific pioneers can no longer solely rely on others to tell their stories for them. While Elon Musk is a divisive figure, and the impacts of SpaceX and Tesla are easy to visualise, it is undeniable that a well-articulated objective and owned distribution channels for that message can inspire and change public sentiment (and you won’t need to buy Twitter to do it).

A rising tide lifts all boats

The cynics amongst you reading this may question why attempting to shift the narrative around science is even necessary: You may prioritise your industry peers, your customers and your investors (and beyond that who cares, right?), but I urge you to play the long game. There are trends working in our favour:

  • There is an incredible amount of public and private funding coming into ‘hard’ areas - UK deep tech investment has increased 33x since 2011. While some of it is renewed dynamism in industrial strategy in response to geopolitical tensions and national interests, including ARIA in the UK and the Inflation Reduction Act in the US, a huge amount of investors believe there are significant returns available. 

  • Historically similar government programs created tech ecosystems such as Silicon Valley. The tech entrepreneurs that came out of Silicon Valley, armed with experience and tech exits, are now focusing on hard problems. This isn’t just the wealthy setting up philanthropic foundations (although the Grantham Foundation and Schmidt Futures are both doing incredible things), you only have to look at Daniel Ek launching Neko Health and Peter Reinhardt’s work with Charm Industrial, to see that exited founders are now turning their experience onto hard, atoms-based problems.

  • This is anecdotal but I believe it holds true: When I graduated (Imperial College ChemEng), I saw a PhD largely as an academic career path. I wanted to start a business but the only person I knew who had founded a business in ChemEng was my supervisor, the Head of Department and named author on 99% of all papers in my Master’s thesis subject area (where he also founded his business). It seemed totally inaccessible. A few years later, Shil, co-founder at Mission Zero Technologies, proved that wasn’t the case but it was through Deep Science Ventures that he was able to make it possible.

  • Barriers to entry for scientific research and commercialisation are coming down. At Deep Science Ventures we are actively working on this through our new PhD, the Venture Science Doctorate, which is putting venture at the heart of research. It is the PhD that I would have done.

It is clear that momentum has shifted to encourage the targeting of hard problems but, unless we shift the narrative, there is a risk that the amount of available talent will not keep up. 

Before working at Deep Science Ventures I spent ten years running a consumer goods company. The great thing about the consumer goods market is that by and large, there are no barriers to entry for people or products - you have an incredible amount of competition, in a highly-dynamic market. It has its downsides (looking at your celebrity beverage brands) but at least the labour market is flexible and you can quickly take a product to market. Deeptech, especially anything related to atoms (anything non-software) does not have that benefit: Development timelines can take 10+ years to reach scale, and skills required are highly specialised, often taking decades. By contrast, it is incredibly inflexible - I mean seriously, have you tried recruiting for an electrochemist at the moment?

Increasing the amount of talent means drastically increasing the number of people with strong scientific foundations, who want to pursue a career solving hard problems. We need to get people excited about the work.

We need better storytelling

The answer, I believe, lies in better storytelling. As a species, we love stories. They often underpin our identities, our cultures and our societies, sometimes stretching back thousands of years. As a tool, we use them on a daily basis to empathise, contextualise and inspire. Within the context of science entrepreneurship, they are the fundamental keystone in bridging the gap between the present state of the science and an imagined future, unlocked by the innovation we’re pursuing.

The lack of effective storytelling in science is not for a lack of stories, it’s for a lack of operationalising them in the right way. Over the last couple of decades we’ve seen the rise of challenger brands outcompeting the incumbents across a variety of different sectors and industries. While the product still has to be excellent, a parallel core competency is also clearly the pursuit of purpose: Netflix wants to entertain the world; Tony’s Chocolonely wants to end child slavery. Major brands, responding to a ‘purpose arms race’ responded in-kind: Hellman’s, over 100 years after their founding, now stands for “fighting against food waste”. The pursuit of a seemingly unachievable objective is clearly critical. Science entrepreneurs should feel lucky - whether it’s developing a cure to cancer, solving climate change or finding a way to scalably feed the world, one of the strongest weapons in storytelling is typically intrinsic to their entire company!

It’s also not for a lack of leadership. To be solving these problems means operating at the very edge of human knowledge. By definition, most entrepreneurs seriously tackling these problems are leaders in their field. The only requirement to bridging the gap to being a thought leader is publicising their work, whether it’s in the form of a post, an article, or a podcast. This is where I believe the biggest gains can be made - we need science founders to start communicating more effectively.

For starters, rather than hiding behind inaccessible language, framing the company within a competing set of approaches to a niche problem that only domain experts understand, let’s make the target outcomes tangible. Let’s save the jargon for the technical due diligence and start communicating with a wider audience in a language they understand. 

Founders don’t need to reinvent the wheel for this; strong science communicators already exist who we should take inspiration from. From publications such as MIT Technology Review or Works in Progress, to individual writers like Packy McCormick at Not Boring or Azeem Azhar at Exponential View, all have made an impact on making the cutting edge of scientific innovation accessible. 

The crucial difference is that rather than telling the stories of others, scientists and engineers must tell their own stories. Through the public work of David Sinclair and Dr. Colin Averill, we can see the significant increase in public awareness of research into longevity and fungi respectively. Even in new media channels like TikTok, the 1.3M followers of big.manny1, who performs chemistry experiments, suggest that there is clearly interest in scientific areas via the right medium. Rather than cynically dismissing the vanity of influencers today, can we encourage a new cohort of science influencers, capable of bridging the gap between seemingly intangible day-to-day science and inspirational outcomes?

Individual storytelling is crucial, but there is also opportunity at the collective level: Whether it might be a national influence campaign to increase the priority of deep tech opportunities within government policy; the creation of scholarship programmes to enable those who are least likely to pursue this career path; physical events to inspire the next generation (such as re-launching the World Fair); or convincing Netflix or Amazon Prime to amplify the stories of those pursuing cutting-edge research, any avenue to inspire the public is crucial to our collective long-term success.

Why we care

At Deep Science Ventures we believe we have a role to play in making atoms-based entrepreneurship cool again. We create science ventures from scratch, ideating in-house, recruiting founding teams and investing at incorporation. We’re targeting the creation of 200 companies over the next 5 years, to add to our established portfolio of 35. All of these companies either are or will be focused on hard problems: Reversing global heating, restorative cultivation, curative therapeutics or scaling intelligence. With an average founding team of 3, this means we need to recruit a founder roughly every 3 days - no easy feat in a world where there might be only 3 perfect candidates for any  given role. It’s in our interest to expand this pool. 

Over the last two years I have had the pleasure of being Head of Marketing at Deep Science Ventures, building out systems to attract new candidates to become founders, and helping existing founders to better tell their stories as they spin out and grow their companies. I am lucky that DSV is a place to pursue a career, and I am moving internally to the role of Head of Venture Portfolio and Business Development within the Climate team. This provides an opportunity for a visionary individual to step into the Head of Marketing role, to stamp their own vision for how DSV can be a pioneer in making atoms-based entrepreneurship cool again. 

If you feel strongly about this topic, you can apply for the role here or, if you want to discuss the topic further, please reach out to me on LinkedIn here.