Deeptech is expecting exciting developments in the near future, with recent leaps including the use of generative AI in drug discovery and ChatGPT changing the way we work. By Q3 in 2022, European deeptech startups had raised €12.3bn, compared to €12.2bn raised in the same period of 2021.
Christophe Bureau, physicist-turned-entrepreneur and general manager for Europe at SINOMED, who also mentors aspiring entrepreneurs, says that entrepreneurship allowed him to bring about large-scale impact. “Entrepreneurship gives you the opportunity to explore different ideas and bring about real-world impact — it gives you that freedom,” he says.
But the deeptech sector is still facing challenges — and a steep talent shortage is one of the biggest hurdles it must overcome.
While it makes sense for some deeptech entrepreneurs to look for technical support from engineering schools, many others are already equipped with technical skills and soon realise that some of the biggest challenges of setting up a deeptech startup lie with bringing the product to market, rather than with building the technology itself.
“It’s just like falling in love — and sometimes when you fall in love, you end up in tears, burning your fingers — it can be very dangerous. But that’s what you have to live with, and if you have an appetite for that, then entrepreneurship is for you,” says Bureau.
But unlike love, building a business can be made slightly easier with appropriate training from universities. So, what are the top three reasons why deeptech entrepreneurs should consider business schools? We asked the experts.
1. Skills training
Deeptech startups have the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. But the path to becoming an entrepreneur can be a difficult one to tread — especially for those from a purely technical background.
“The future is heavily technology-based, and I’m convinced that bringing engineers and business school students together is the most important ingredient to successful startups”
For Inge Kerkloh-Devif, senior executive director of HEC Paris Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center — the business school’s arm that supports innovation through training courses, accelerators and incubators — one remedy is bringing technical and entrepreneurial expertise together.
“The future is heavily technology-based, and I’m convinced that bringing engineers and business school students together is the most important ingredient to successful startups,” she says.
Joint ventures are one way to do this — such as HEC’s joint MSc in entrepreneurship, which allows students from France’s science and engineering institute, École Polytechnique, to also study at HEC, and vice versa.
Bureau himself got into entrepreneurship after taking part in Challenge+, a training course organised by HEC Paris for technical professionals, which he says transformed him from a theoretical physicist into an entrepreneur and gave him the “very basic ideas of what it means to grow a company”.
“[Professionals from technical fields] have to learn basic terms like a pitch deck, for example,” says Bureau. “You may create 10 slides for a pitch deck, which seems to be a very easy exercise, but is actually way more complex than that. They need to answer some key questions like what is the value proposition, business model, business plan, a good reason for why people should invest in you and how they will make money.”
For Magali Anderson, chief sustainability and innovation officer at Swiss-based sustainable construction firm Holcim, business skills are also key in shifting companies to being more sustainable.
“For instance, selling mobile phones as a service could incentivise customers to replace them less frequently,” she says. “So it’s about changing the entire business model of the company so that making money means producing or selling less, rather than making token superficial changes.”
2. A robust network
A 2022 survey on accelerators found that around 50% of founders wanted more investor introductions. Business schools can offer a huge networking pool for aspiring entrepreneurs to use, which can be vital for accessing opportunities, resources and information.
“Networking is often underestimated, especially amongst people from technical backgrounds, but this is the business development life — this is fundraising life. It’s all about the right conversations and support,” says Kerkloh-Devif.
“We have 70k alumni all over the world. So there’s a big advantage in joining this community and being totally connected to this business world, and getting introductions into the business world,” she adds. “Nurturing a global entrepreneurial community is also the reason why HEC Paris decided to join the Creative Destruction Lab network (a nonprofit), to support deeptech startups alongside other prestigious universities.”
“Networking is often underestimated, especially amongst people from technical backgrounds, but this is the business development life — this is fundraising life. It’s all about the right conversations and support”
Studies have shown that university-educated entrepreneurs who had large, active alumni networks were more successful than those who did not have such connections.
“When you understand your value proposition, you can either work by yourself in your room or you can get out there and talk to people. Going out into the field and not being afraid of talking to people and challenging yourself is key to growing your business,” says Bureau.
3. Learning by doing
Entrepreneurs from just 12 top Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses founded 5,505 companies between 2006 and 2018, which includes 72 unicorns such as car-sharing service BlaBlaCar, eyewear brand Warby Parker and interior design company Houzz.
But not all MBAs are made equal. Kerkloh-Devif says that giving students a chance to apply their learnings in the real world is key in entrepreneurship training.
“At HEC, we place students in real-world situations so that they can learn by doing things, which is super important in learning how to transform their technical ideas into business ideas,” she says. “The early stages are completely teaching and theory, but then we go into testing and launching students’ ideas, and then into build mode where the ideas are grown. And if it’s a good idea, it will be accelerated — so the course is essentially an entrepreneurship pass.”
Bureau agrees, adding that while academic training gave him the skills and know-how to succeed in a field, real-world experience helped him understand his strengths and weaknesses and whether certain ideas can take off or not.
“At HEC, we place students in real-world situations so that they can learn by doing things, which is super important in learning how to transform their technical ideas into business ideas”
“This is what I tell my students too — I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my long career from which I’ve learnt, and I can pass these learnings on so that they don’t have to make the same mistakes,” he says.
However, Anderson points out that she never felt the need to go to a business school as she was trained in business management on a job that placed engineers in business-related roles.
“That was very good for me, and if you’re not in a company that will give you these opportunities, then an MBA certainly would be useful,” she says.
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