June Cover Story: Deep Tech
The hottest Southeast Asian startups in AI, Biotech, Blockchain and NewSpace. And why they make everyone else look boring.
Illustrations by Nina Martinez
When Dr. Philip Wong, a Singaporean cardiologist, unbuttoned his shirt and affixed a tiny white plastic device near the left breast of his smooth, hairless chest, he wasn’t inside a hospital. And the orderly beeps that mirrored his heart’s sinus rhythm didn’t emanate from a monitor above his bed. Instead, they were squeaked out on his mobile while Wong was sitting in a Singapore food center sipping a cup of tea.
Web Biotech, the start-up he co-founded, has created what it calls the world’s first cloud-based, tether-free continuous electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring machine. The data Web Biotech is amassing will allow it, by using artificial intelligence (A.I.), to better diagnose heart irregularities.
Welcome to the potentially life-altering but often whispery world of Deep Tech. Deep Tech refers to technologies based on genuine scientific breakthroughs or innovations that can profoundly change entire industries or, in the case of Web Biotech, also people’s lives. Swati Chaturvedi, co-founder of Propel (X), an online investing platform for Deep Tech in Silicon Valley, was the first to popularize the term Deep Tech in 2014 as part of a broader effort to differentiate those firms from the mass of start-ups engaged in business model innovation, incremental service improvements or the deployment of standardized technologies.
“Over the years the term ‘technology’ had been hijacked by IT and Internet businesses,” she says. “E-commerce, software as a service (SaaS), software in general, those are not really Deep Tech.”
Today, Deep Tech includes start-ups involved in A.I., Autonomous Vehicles, Blockchain, Biotech, Medical Devices, Robotics, and NewSpace. Think of Deep Tech as the PhDs’ way to carve out a new and more exclusive start-up club now that the tech space has been diluted by mere graduates. No Angry Birds here.
There are other intrinsic differences between Deep Tech startups and the rest. Consider an e-commerce start-up specializing in bridal gowns. It has no technology risk but significant market risk as it competes with traditional bridal shops, general e-commerce merchants and others.
Contrast that with Aromyx, a Deep Tech start-up in Propel (X)’s stable, which is attempting to digitize the sense of smell, partly by breaking down every scent into its constituent chemicals. Technology hurdles include its ongoing efforts to stabilize certain scent sensors. There is a clear technology risk with this unproven technology. The later challenges of marketing and sales seem minor by comparison.
Here’s another difference. With Deep Tech start-ups, the time to revenue is long, says Chaturvedi. But the time to exit may not be. A larger corporate behemoth may acquire it once its technology is proven. With a more conventional start-up it is usually the other way around: Acquisition is unlikely until money is coming through the door.
Leadership is often another differentiator. Conventional start-up wisdom has it that PhDs do not make good CEOs or managers and so there is a need to pair them with MBAs. Not necessarily so with Deep Tech firms.
This is borne out at AyoxxA Biosystems (biotech), nuTonomy (autonomous vehicles) and Wong’s Web Biotech, three start-ups featured in this issue and all led by PhDs. Yet there is also room in Deep Tech for the self-taught: Agridigital (blockchain) and Gilmour Space Technologies (NewSpace), two other featured firms, are helmed by non-PhDs who bootstrapped themselves financially and educationally.
But it is the impact of Deep Tech on the start-up ecosystem in Southeast Asia that really sets it apart. If even a fraction of the region’s Deep Tech start-ups take off, in industries as varied as space research or autonomous vehicles, the region may start to shed its reputation as a breeding ground for copycat business models (in the ride hailing space, for instance, or e-commerce) and come into its own as a place of deep and original research. A mini-Silicon Valley, in other words. Will it happen?
Philip Wong, Cardiologist & Co-founder of Web Biotech Photo Credit: Joel Lim
Soon we might all have doctors in our pockets. “The smartphone is going to be the cornerstone of healthcare in the future,” says Dr. Philip Wong, a cardiologist and co-founder of Web Biotech, which has created what it calls the world’s first cloud-based, tether-free continuous electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring machine.
Andreas Schmidt, Co-founder of AyoxxA Biosystems Photo Credit: Company Courtesy
Having trouble reading this? Age-related macular degeneration typically starts affecting people in their 60s (older than Inc. Southeast Asia’s average reader), and is the result of chronic inflammation leading to abnormal vascularization or atrophy of the retinal layers in affected eyes.
Gilmour Space Technologies
Adam Gilmour, Founder & CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies Photo Credit: Joel Lim
For bankers keen to beat those mid-career blues, consider becoming a rocketeer. “I went from spreadsheets filled with derivative calculations to spreadsheets filled with rocket calculations and it was an easy transition,” says Adam Gilmour, founder and CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies (Gilmour Space henceforth).
Emma Weston, CEO & Co-founder of AgriDigital Photo Credit: Courtesy Company
Forget cryptocurrencies. Look at supply chains to understand blockchain’s magic. In December 2016 an Australian farmer sold 23 tonnes of wheat to a wholesaler and received payment in an hour—in what is believed to be the world’s first live settlement for a physical agricultural commodity using blockchain.
Doug Parker, COO at nuTonomy Photo Credit: Joel Lim
Driving can be deadly. In 2017 the automotive sector saw 1.4 million deaths globally; while the commercial aviation sector saw zero. Part of the reason for the relative safety of the skies, according to evangelists of autonomous vehicles (AVs), is that people travel on planes operated by companies obliged to keep them safe. The operators try to ensure, among other things, that their vehicles are serviced and their pilots competent. Contrast that with automobiles: some 95% of road accidents are due to human error.