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Why R&D is crucial in deep-tech companies to foster growth and innovation

Elon Musk’s, Neuralink, aims to develop brain-computer technology so that human brain can directly talk to computers. This holds the promise of revolutionizing healthcare, augmenting human capabilities, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites or Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robots are more such examples, all driven by robust R&D.

SpaceX’s 2022 R&D investment of $1.3 billion further highlights the critical role of R&D in deep- tech companies, essential for tackling complex challenges across various industries.

Looking from different perspectives, here is why deep-tech companies need a strong R&D unit and capabilities.

  1. Deep-tech addresses complex technical challenges; this needs iterative R&D

Deep tech companies use advanced scientific and engineering principles to address complex problems. Exploring new scientific discoveries, engineering innovative materials and processes, and overcoming technical hurdles requires extensive R&D efforts.

SpaceX’s R&D breakthrough, reusable orbital-class rockets, has revolutionized space access, significantly reducing cost and increasing launch frequency. The company’s primary R&D focus was developing advanced guidance systems, heat-resistant materials, and innovative landing techniques for safe and efficient rocket reuse.

Its Falcon 9 is the world’s first orbital class rocket capable of reflight driving down the cost of space access.

“Examining the R&D side, Falcon 9’s first stage incorporates nine Merlin engines and aluminum- lithium alloy tanks containing liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) propellant. Each component, from the engines to tanks to fuel type, was decided after years of experiments, trials, failures, false positives, and reconfirmations of successes.

Timeline-wise, the first test flight of Falcon 9 was on June 4, 2010. Further, the first Falcon 9 first-stage ship landed on April 8, 2016, and SpaceX relished a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage on March 30, 2017. So, there are at least seven years between the first test flight and implementation and many more years of internal R&D before the first test flight.”, shares Shivam     Kansra, Technology expert at GreyB.

  1. Working on novel technology necessitates navigating high technical risks of failure; thus, the need for solid R&D

Deep tech ventures face a higher technical risk as they’re chasing novelty without a map. R&D serves as a crucial platform for experimenting, testing, and validating technical concepts,minimizing the risk of failure during later development stages. “Impossible Foods, a Redwood, California start-up, aimed to create plant-based meat with the taste, texture, and aroma of real meat, a feat never achieved before.

So, the first step, in 2011, was to launch a biochemical investigation into why meat tastes the way it does.

The answer was blood, or rather, one of its iron-containing molecules, heme. Over five years of intensive research and hundreds of iterations to develop non meat heme through yeast fermentation. They engineered complex flavor profiles and realistic meat textures to successfully launch the Impossible Burger in 2016.

The final version consists of soy and potato protein, yeast-fermented heme, sunflower and coconut oil, the culinary binder methylcellulose (commonly used in jam and ice cream), and food starch (an ingredient in most canned soups). The venture addressed technical challenges such as mimicking meat flavor and texture, cooking properties, scalability, and cost-effectiveness.

The company’s commitment to the future R&D breakthroughs was evident in their decision to double the R&D team in 2020.”, shares, Priya Vashisth, Tech and Innovation expert at GreyB.

  1. Bringing complex technologies to market needs long development cycles

Deep tech solutions often take longer to develop than traditional products. R&D is essential for the extended research, prototyping, and refinement period needed to bring these complex technologies to market.

Alphabet’s Waymo faced the challenge of navigating complex road environments safely and reliably. Thus, there has been extensive research on sensor technologies (LiDAR, cameras, radar), artificial intelligence algorithms for decision-making, and simulations for testing autonomous driving systems in diverse scenarios.

Founded about 15 years back in 2009 as the Google Self-Driving Car Project, Waymo’s existence was revealed after almost 2 years of road testing with 7 vehicles. Finally, in 2015, Google provided the world’s first fully driverless ride on public roads. Since then, the company has published over 20 research papers, indicating extensive R&D efforts for the enhancements of the self driving cars. One of its papers published last year shares that the Waymo driver was recorded to have a 6.8 times lower crash rate involving any injury.

From SpaceX to Waymo, these examples emphasize the critical role of R&D in deep-tech companies. These visionary initiatives backed by robust research efforts lead to groundbreaking advancements and industry disruption. As the global demand for innovative solutions intensifies, deep-tech companies must prioritize R&D efforts to remain competitive and pave the way for a technologically advanced future.

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