diving into deep tech

A hard tech revolution is coming, and Houston is primed to play a role in it

At a recent virtual event, experts discussed the hard tech wave that's coming for Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The past couple decades of innovation has been largely defined by software — and its been a bit of a boom. However, lately it's become evident that it's time for hardware innovation to shine.

At the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, a few hard tech innovators joined a virtual discussion on the future of hardware — and what Houston's role will be in it.

When it comes to advancing technology for humankind, Adam Sharkawy, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Material Impact, a HXVF portfolio fund, says it's time to expand the walls of what is possible.

"Unlike other types of technologies that may facilitate the possible, deep and hard technologies expand what is in the realm of the possible," he says on the panel. "Software has caught up, and we need a new deep tech wave."

And the future looks promising, as Sharkawy says he's seen hard tech grow over the past 5 to 7 years by about 22 percent. Nic Radford, president and CEO of Houston Mechatronics agrees it's time to shift the focus to hard tech.

"The Information Age was the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but now we need to uncover the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world is," he says. "And we need to make those investments toward that."

But investments seem, at least in the recent past, harder to come by for hard tech startups compared to software companies with quick exit strategies.

"Deep tech is traditionally thought of as requiring deep pockets," Sharkawy says.

Radford says there was over $167 billion in capital deployments last year, and only 8 percent of that went to industrial or hard tech. Hardware, he says, is tougher to evaluate, they take longer to exit and are tougher to scale.

"To me that's what makes them a gold mine," Radford adds. "It's an underserved market for sure, and that's because we're tougher to evaluate."

Something to note though, he continues, is that hard tech is going to have a bigger societal impact, but maybe it's not the one with the biggest return.

"I think corporates have an special role to play in the inevitability of hard tech," Radford says. "They aren't completely motivated by financial returns."

Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, says he's had a different experience with raising funds. The Houston entrepreneur has raised over $100 million and is planning to go public soon. He's achieved this by attracting investment from the top VC funds in the country. If you zero in on these powerful funds, you can see they are dedicating more and more funds to this arena. And, he predicts, other VC funds will follow.

"This is a unique time for hardware companies to go and and raise from the top venture capitals of the world," Chakrabarti says.

The city of Houston, with its firm footing in the energy and space industries has an important role to play in this new era.

"The Houston area has all the key ingredients to be an innovation hub — no question," Sharkawy says.

The panelists identified Houston's fine education institutions, major corporations present, access to talent, and more as indicators for success. But the innovation here needs to continue to develop intentionally.

"I'd love to see Houston not try to copycat into a general tech hub," Sharkawy says. "Instead it would be great for Houston leverage its unique position as a leader in energy and space and help its constituents of more traditional energy — big corporates, for example — transform into the new frontier."

Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says she's seen the space industry take off as the field becomes more and more commercialized. And locally there's a lot of potential for Houston and all the resources and infrastructure that already exists.

"It's about taking what you're good at, and making it better," she says.

Each of the panelists expressed confidence in this evolving wave of hard tech — and are keeping a close watch on the major players as well as the city of Houston.

"We're going to have to get into the world and do something," Radford says. "That next wave of innovation is specifically interacting with our environment, in my opinion."

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Building Houston

 
 

Nauticus Robotics has expanded to the United Kingdom and to Norway. Image via nauticusrobotics.com

A Webster-based tech company has officially launched operations in two European countries — and it's only the beginning.

Nauticus Robotics Inc. (NASDAQ: KITT), which went public a few months ago, opened operations in Norway and the United Kingdom, "beginning the company’s international expansion strategy for 2023 and beyond," according to a release from Nauticus. The company develops underwater robots, software, and services to the marine industries.

“The ocean touches nearly every aspect of our lives, yet paradoxically seems to receive less attention and innovation when compared to other sectors,” says Nicolaus Radford, founder and CEO of Nauticus, in the release. “As we expand our operations to these strategic locales and beyond, our core mission remains the same: to become the most impactful ocean robotics company and realize a future where autonomous robotic technologies are commonplace and enable the blue economy for the better."

The two new operating bases are in Stavanger, Norway, and Aberdeen, Scotland. The two outposts will serve the North Sea offshore market. According to the release, Nauticus will work with local partners to service the region’s offshore wind and oil and gas markets. The company will also expand Nauticus Fleet, a "robotic navy of surface and subsea robots," which was established in April of 2022.

These two new regional offices are just the first examples of international growth Nauticus has planned, according to the release. Established to serve as logistics operation centers, the company's expansion plan includes new remote operation centers and service teams around the world in growth markets. The company did not announce any specific expansion plans.

"We are eager to ramp up activities in these international markets as our growing team contributes to our mission," Radford adds.

In October, shortly after its IPO, Nauticus announced that it has been awarded a second multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit, part of the U.S. Defense Department, for development of a self-piloted amphibious robot system powered by the company’s ToolKITT command-and-control software.

The company was originally founded in 2014 as Houston Mechatronics Inc. before rebranding in 2021.

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