I’ve spent my whole working life in the technology and scientific sectors, and throughout that time I’ve come to realise there are two constants: First, new technologies will continue to be developed at breakneck pace, and second, in the race to catch up there will always be the risk of falling for the next big tech fad. This week it’s Threads (vs. Twitter). Last year it was Metaverse, and this year (so far) has been dominated by (generative) AI.
In nearly ten years working in the physics labs at Oxford University, and the 25 I’ve worked (so far!) in tech PR since, I’ve seen all sorts of technologies come and go. Running the Deep Tech stream at CCgroup, it’s my job to identify hot and emerging technologies and innovations, while filtering out what’s not relevant. With that in mind, I’ve put together a few top tips to help deep tech investors and the broader technology community better identify the genuinely original and useful, and avoid the hype and bluster:
- Have a long memory
Tech is rarely original. When looking at an exciting ‘new’ piece of tech, ask yourself whether you recall seeing anything like it before. ‘Cloud’ computing is just another version of the good old mainframe from the 1960s, except now loads of them can be geographically distributed and connected by high-speed fibre (and they don’t use tapes for storage any more). But boy, does it get hyped up as revolutionary tech.
- Ask whether it has a business case or market need
The Metaverse is fundamentally a great idea. It’s very entertaining, and perhaps even useful to help enterprises with things like collaboration. But beware a solution looking for a problem. A CB Insights research report notes that “tackling problems that are interesting to solve, rather than those that serve a market need” was cited as the second most common cause of startup failure, flagged in 35% of cases. If there’s no discernible business case, question its likely longevity…
- Establish if there’s a recognisable ecosystem
It’s important to identify evidence of other players providing parts, elements or innovations that this new shiny bit of kit or service interacts with or builds on. Look into whether there are industry bodies, technical standards, or special interest groups supporting it. If it doesn’t “fit” anywhere, it’s either astonishingly original or without substance. And even if it is astonishingly original, see point 2.
- Ask how mature the technology is
Early conceptual announcements can draw in funding from investors, but the technology itself might not reach the market for years, if at all. Before getting excited about the next big thing, ask yourself whether it’s instead just ‘vapourware’ – talking a good game but nothing of any material substance. See if you can make an assessment based on NASA’s Technology Readiness Level, invented in the 1970s to provide “consistent and uniform discussions of technical maturity across different types of technology.”
- Beware of investor trends
Just because other investors seem to be backing an idea, doesn’t always mean they are right. Investors tend to follow hype and other money just as much as everyone else, but this is often not what actually sells, or addresses my earlier point about market need. Recent research by Boston Consulting Group showed that 77% European investors admit they don’t have a good understanding of deep tech, highlighting the danger of following the herd.
- Generally, be a cynic
The old adage,“if it looks too good to be true, it probably is” is still a great piece of advice. You lose nothing, except a bit of time, digging around on all of the above points and just asking yourself that key question.
Still, revelatory products do crop up, and while a bit of scepticism is healthy, jumping in early can yield high rewards if you’re willing to take on the potential high risk. From a CTO’s point of view, it can be tempting to sit back and wait for others to make their mistakes for you, but early adoption can also provide a highly valuable competitive edge, particularly if the investment is in operational technologies and you have the integration skills to make it worthwhile.
In emerging tech, while investors sometimes get things wrong, we should also acknowledge there’s often no smoke without fire, and there will be occasions when an emerging technology is a genuine contender with a bright future (note: a technology alone will rarely succeed without investment, marketing, and skilful leadership). But that bellwether should never be a substitute for doing your own research and due diligence. Get out of your echo chamber, listen to multiple opinions, seek out genuine experts, and especially consider the extent to which any particular technology is part of a wider ecosystem.
And before getting swept up in the next tech fad, always remember the golden rule: don’t jump without looking down.