What makes a backable deep-tech founder

/ Aspire / Blog + Insights / 27 Jun 2023 / James Pinner

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One of the most hotly debated topics in deep-tech investing is what a successful founder looks like and the role of the original technology inventor(s).
Technical founders are often maligned due to their lack of commercial knowledge or experience and many believe that a successful start-up needs to be run by a CEO with broader skillsets to commercialise the technology, build a strong team and raise capital.



  • A commercial CEO is needed to supplement a technical founder.

There are some that believe that highly technical founder(s) are best placed to drive the technology aspects of the business only, and a more experienced CEO needs to be brought in to drive the commercial aspects of the business. The basis of this strategy is that technical and commercial skills are very different and technical founders should be allowed to keep doing what they do best and someone with a proven ability to run a business, sell, hire and motivate a team and raise capital should be brought in. This assertion is broadly based on a generalisation that highly technical people generally don’t have the background to do the “non-technical stuff”.

  • The inventor should drive the business

The alternative viewpoint is that investors should only back those founders that not only created the technology / innovation but will be able to drive the company forward in the long-term. Whilst the technical founder may not have a proven track record in hiring and building teams, selling products or raising capital, these are skills that can be learned and it’s more important to back a founder that has the desire to learn and grow.

This way, the founder is more likely to be purpose driven and therefore more likely to drive success in the long-term especially when the going gets tough (as it always does in a start-ups journey). These founders should also have a better understanding of the technology and if it is a highly technical problem/sales process be best placed to sell the product.


There are a couple of middle grounds too:

  • one is co-founders – partnering up the technical founder(s) with more commercial co-founders. In this model, founder cohesion and aligned values becomes much more critical. The critical thing here, in our experience, is the team cohesion – and ensuring co-founders are aligned in their values and ambition. At the end of the day, someone needs to be the boss and this needs to be agreed early-on, otherwise it can cause friction and even resentment.
  • The other approach (which also can apply for non deep-tech start-ups) is to bring in a more experienced CEO once the company has developed a scalable sales/production process or has substantially developed its technology and the focus is much more on commercialisation and/or scaling that technology.
So, what is our view?

Theory aside, the reality is we regularly talk to companies that span this entire spectrum and it is never black and white.

That said, we do favour the founder backed company approach. Bringing in external CEOs who are not purpose driven and/or able to deeply understand the technical aspects of a company’s core value proposition outweighs the benefits of commercial experience in our view. Further, where we see a company which intends to bring in an as yet unnamed CEO, this creates too much uncertainty for us to be able to gain conviction, we can’t back a leader we don’t yet know.

Yes, backing a highly technical founder who may have worked in academia, or a research institute does involve taking a leap of faith that they will be able to develop the necessary commercial skills. The same is true for any founder to be honest, they still have a lot of skills to learn along the journey and you have to believe they have the raw ability and drive to do so.

From our experience and the data we have seen, the vast majority of successful venture scale exits do come from companies founded and led by the original technical founder(s). There will always be exceptions that prove the rule but we are generally looking to back the original inventors that we believe have the potential to build successful enterprises of the future.

How do we identify these founders?

There are some key traits / characteristics that we look for in such founders:

  • A growth mindset

Any start-up founder will have to learn an incredible amount and range of skills – which will evolve as the start-up grows and no successful start-up follows a linear growth path.

What we’re looking for here is a founder who’s already looking to learn some of these skills and is demonstrating and an ability and desire to take on new and broad skills. Such founders will be actively seeking out different points of view and talking to others that have already travelled their journey.

Intellect takes many forms but we’re not just looking for pure scientific / engineering ability (that is somewhat of a given). What we’re looking for is founders with the desire and ability to tackle and solve a broad range of problems, think laterally, communicate and motivate. These are all skills that technical founders may have already developed / demonstrated even in highly scientific backgrounds. 

  • Purpose driven

This is probably more important than having a growth mindset. We’re looking for founders who are driven by building long-term growth, not just looking for a financial return or short-term win.

These are founders who have a particular motivation to see their invention being used by the broadest possible audience or solving a huge societal problem. This is more than just seeing a working product, these founders want their product to make a real impact in the world. These founders want to see their inventions cure diseases, reduce carbon emissions or just make peoples’ lives easier. This is what motivates them. Financial rewards will come if they deliver on the impact but money is not the primary driver.

The reason this is important in our view (for any founder) is that building a start-up into a large successful enterprise takes a long time and incredible perseverance and resilience. This is even more so for deep-tech companies which usually have to navigate many years before they can even launch a product let alone make meaningful sales. Being driven by the impact their technology can have is, in our view, more likely to motivate such founders to keep going when the going gets tough. Founders motivate merely by financial reward, have less to lose when things get hard and the draw of walking away or taking a corporate job can look much more attractive.

Founder motivation for the long-term is also why we care about their level of ownership (but that’s a topic for another day).

  • Relevant previous experience

Technical founders will often have recruited and hired technical teams. They will have raised funding or grants and they may have a strong existing insight into the industry that their technology is being created for. All of these are highly transferrable skills that they can apply / adapt in their start-up and should not be under-weighted.

Other approaches:

Of course, different companies and technologies also lend themselves to different approaches. For example, a drug discovery company that is looking to licence its product to a large pharma will have a much greater weighting towards the technical abilities of the founders compared to e.g. an agri-tech company that is looking to sell to a broad range of businesses.

There are also investors that look to identify large problems and build a team to wrap around a technical inventor / technology. This is the venture studio model and can work well to create a start-up where you are combining a technical solution, a proven commercial team and a known issue that customers are demanding a solution to.

It should also be noted that it isn’t just the founders that can be purpose driven. For instance, many of us care deeply about solving various societal or environmental issues and a newly hired CEO can be just as driven about seeing the impact of a technology in action as the original inventors.

What does this mean for founders?

If you are a deep-tech founder (or are considering becoming one), our recommendation is not to be scared off by what you don’t know yet or even your relative lack of experience running a business. If you are truly passionate about your invention / solution, take the leap.

You should prepare as much as possible for the journey ahead. In our eyes, the most important thing you can do is to test whether your solution is something customers will want. Really get to know their problem and what they are looking for, what are the barriers you will have to overcome. Obviously this is easier for a new drug discovery for a known disease than an industrial process that could have many different applications.

Most importantly, talk - to us and other investors, to others that have actually been through the start-up journey or know your proposed industry well. Be curious and keep asking questions. You can do all of this for free before you commit to the venture – it will set you in good stead if you do proceed and/or help you identify any major issues early.

So, in conclusion…

This will always be a hot topic of debate and every investor will have their own preferences for what they look for in founders. No approach is always right and there is no one size fits all.

That said, as a rule of thumb, we strongly believe that successful founders can come from any background, experience isn’t a pre-requisite. But, we will also continue to keep an open mind and be curious about any founding teams.

We will always strongly favour mission driven founders and believe most start-up investors think likewise. If you are a potential deep-tech founder, don’t be put-off by what you don’t know yet, instead focus on broadening your knowledge and learning from others that have trodden your proposed path before.

Yes it can be a leap of faith to build a start-up but if you genuinely believe in the impact your technology can have, we’d love to hear from you.

Deep-tech companies currently back by our Aspire fund or Elevate underlying funds ...

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