Imagine the industrial 3D printing company you founded 30 years ago is now worth billions, with manufacturing customers in 68 countries and over 1,200 employees.
You were a pioneer in this field, and yet you know that your technology has enormous untapped potential that your own in-house research and development cannot fully unlock.
One day you get a call from a deep tech founder who can create a working design of the Aerospike rocket engine – a challenge that has baffled NASA for decades.
They are quickly forging an exclusive partnership and are now poised to dominate the space propulsion industry, which is expected to reach nearly $33 billion by 2031.
This is the story of the successful collaboration between EOS, the 3D technology and solutions provider founded by Hans Langer, and Hyperganic, an AI-based engineering startup founded by CEO Lin Kayser.
The Aerospike rocket engine is up to 20% more efficient than conventional rocket engines. But due to its complexity and the limitations of traditional CAD tools, it was never successfully realized.
Using their AI-based development platform, Kayser’s teams create algorithmic models that enable a variety of aerospike designs in minutes, which can be quickly iterated and tested to determine the best design. Together with the 3D printing capabilities of EOS, this is a winning combination.
Unfortunately, most collaborations between deep tech startups and corporations don’t work that way.
According to a 2016 study, 82% of companies consider interactions with startups important and 23% say these interactions are “business-critical”. And yet, 50% of startups said their experience working with companies was mediocre or worse.
Confusing, isn’t it. At first glance, the two sides complement each other perfectly:
Deep tech startups have disruptive technologies.
Businesses have operational levers—customer base, distribution channels, and business expertise—to scale and expand technology.
In reality, according to Massimo Portincaso, chairman of Hello Tomorrow, what happens is that collaborations expose the fragility of startups and the bureaucracy of companies.
Obviously, having synergies is not enough. In order to exploit the full potential of cooperation, a fundamental rethink is required – on both sides.
Businesses have an attitude.
Organizations in virtually every industry increasingly require deep tech and sustainability at the core of their operations – skills they are unlikely to develop in-house.
Still, companies often have this condescending attitude toward startups, says Kayser, a serial entrepreneur. “What they need to understand is that deep tech startups have the ability to disrupt their business and render them obsolete. Companies are an important part of the ecosystem, but their main role is as multipliers and credibility providers.”
Herbert Mangesius PhD, General Partner at Vsquared Ventures agrees. As an early investor in Hyperganic and other European deep tech startups such as Isar Aerospace and IQM Quantum Computers, he is frustrated with the conservative mindset of large companies and how long it takes them to make strategic decisions:
“Once they see the value of working with a startup,” he says, “they need to make sure there’s high-level sponsorship, clear direction from the top.”
When top management expresses excitement about the partnership, Kayser says, it creates urgency for the actual work. This means that we can meet with project managers twice a month instead of twice a week.
Startups have an inferiority complex.
Here’s the thing: Most of the solutions to our biggest planetary problems — not to mention exponential productivity, growth, and competitiveness — will come from deep tech startups. The best have multiple partners to choose from.
But her attitude is too submissive, says Kayser: “We’re just a small startup, we don’t make any money. Please, corporate, can you give us a chance?”
Instead, they must understand the value they bring to the table.
It starts with being clear about their mission. “Founders are obsessed with their technology,” says Kayser, “but they can’t tell you why it’s there. I can tell you exactly why my company exists: to dramatically accelerate the pace of innovation to solve one of humanity’s greatest threats, climate change.”
“When founders have this belief in their mission, they negotiate differently. Her attitude is, “Do you want this? Or should I go to someone who does?’”
Startups don’t have to wait to be supported by corporate partners who depend on them for their survival. You can act as equals: take responsibility for defining the project and not just rely on companies for funding.
Changing this mindset will create a more productive power dynamic where both deep tech startups and corporations respect each other’s strengths that they bring to the table.
When that happens, we will all win.