| 5 minute read

Building Europe’s deep tech ecosystem: The role of universities

Tasha Day

At a time of complex and wicked challenges such as climate change, food security and income inequality, innovation presents a source of hope. In Europe, the quest to become a deep tech leader is fuelled by the need and drive to address these critical issues and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

A powerful movement is underway, with the EU investing heavily in strengthening Europe’s deep tech ecosystem. This is illustrated by initiatives such as EIT’s Deep Tech Talent Initiative, which aims to skill one million people within deep tech fields over the next three years[1]. In this rapidly evolving landscape, empowering innovative deep tech entrepreneurs is key to unlocking the solutions that will carve out our future world. Read on as we explore the challenges, opportunities and the role of universities in Europe’s deep tech future.

Empowering deep tech entrepreneurs

Despite its growing popularity, there is concern that this deep tech push is insufficiently supported by efforts to make Europe more competitive and entrepreneurial, and there is currently a large deep tech commercialisation gap compared with the US and China[2]. According to EIT, Europe lacks the talent and skilled labour necessary to properly leverage new technologies to enable its green and digital transitions.

‘Fostering, attracting, and retaining deep tech talents is crucial to enable the green and digital transitions and harness a new wave of innovation in line with the New European Innovation Agenda’’ – Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth[3]

As deep tech relies heavily on scientific research, universities represent a key support structure and breeding ground that could be utilised in fostering deep tech start-ups and innovation[4]. Many of Europe’s deep tech companies have their roots in academia, either as spinouts or independent start-ups. But there is still much unlocked potential in Europe’s leading academic institutions.

Matching the high standard of science at these universities with commercial experience can be challenging; first time academic entrepreneurs struggle with the process of finding product-market fit and lack understanding of what is commercially important.

Furthermore, as deep tech innovations have a longer R&D period and require more investment than traditional start-ups, the commercialisation process differs. The learning journey of these academic deep tech entrepreneurs can be facilitated by knowledge from tech transfer officers and entrepreneurs already in the field. University staff therefore need additional knowledge in order to support university-based deep tech start-ups.

Existing training for deep tech entrepreneurship tends to focus on acceleration for already existing start-ups, and there is currently a lack of pre-incubation possibilities. European universities can therefore help close the gap by fostering an entrepreneurial culture in deep tech disciplines and training this group of researchers in commercialisation. European HEIs now need specialised deep tech entrepreneurship programs, as well as training for the coaches and mentors needed to teach them.

Collaboration for deep tech

To create real impact through deep tech, greater collaboration is needed, both between academic scientists and wider entrepreneurial ecosystems to connect new concepts with market needs, as well as across deep tech disciplines [5]. It is therefore necessary to involve these external stakeholders in deep tech entrepreneurship programs at HEIs. As most successful start-ups will break through these traditional silos, these programs should thus be interdisciplinary in nature.

Social Sciences and Humanities for deep tech

Complex global challenges often require a multi-faceted approach for finding solutions. As well as supporting the deep tech disciplines themselves to thrive, it is vital that we pave the way for interdisciplinary collaboration and the integration of the social sciences and humanities (SSH) into deep tech projects. In this way, deep tech teams can benefit from diverse perspectives. Involving scientists and humanists in the development process also allows ethical considerations, potential biases and societal impact to be thoroughly examined. SSH researchers can contribute to discussions about the implications of deep tech on societal issues such as employment, privacy, security and human rights. The perspective of SSH should be integrated from the early stages of deep tech projects, to ensure equal feelings of ownership and to allow SSH to use its expertise to shape the direction of deep tech developments.

In conclusion, Europe’s journey to close the deep tech commercialisation gap and become a leader in the field requires a multi-faceted approach. Empowering entrepreneurs, leveraging universities’ potential, fostering collaboration, and integrating social science and humanities perspectives are all essential elements for unlocking Europe’s deep tech potential and addressing global challenges through innovation. By embracing these strategies and putting universities at the forefront of deep tech entrepreneurship, Europe can pave the way to a more sustainable future.

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[1] EIT Deep Tech Talent initiative (no date) EIT Deep Tech Talent Initiative. Available at: https://www.eitdeeptechtalent.eu/ (Accessed: 01 August 2023).

[2] Winning formula: How Europe’s top tech start-ups get it right (2021) McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/winning-formula-how-europes-top-tech-start-ups-get-it-right (Accessed: 01 August 2023).

[3] Press release: EIT Boosts Deep Tech training in Higher Education (no date b) EIT HEI. Available at: https://eit-hei.eu/press-release-eit-boosts-deep-tech-training-in-higher-education/ (Accessed: 01 August 2023).

[4] Dealroom & Sifted (2021) 2021: the year of Deep Tech. European Startups. Available at: https://europeanstartups.co/uploaded/2021/01/EUST-Dealroom-Sifted-Deep-Tech-Jan-2021-1.pdf (Accessed: 01 August 2023).

[5] Scaling up with the European Innovation Council: Launch of the new initiative to support Europe’s future Deep Tech Champions (2023) European Innovation Council. Available at: https://eic.ec.europa.eu/news/scaling-european-innovation-council-launch-new-initiative-support-europes-future-deep-tech-champions-2023-06-01_en (Accessed: 01 August 2023).

Tasha Day (author) is a Project officer at UIIN, where she undertakes research activities and creates content on a wide variety of topics including entrepreneurship education, sustainability and research valorisation.

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