With the need to meet mankind’s enormous and growing demand for energy while simultaneously reducing net emissions, we’re entering a golden age for energy innovation. In order to eliminate fossil fuels and recapture excess CO2, entrepreneurs working in fields like advanced nuclear, advanced materials, energy and carbon control systems, carbon capture, grid optimization, synthetic fuels and other forms of carbon utilization are looking at taking the leap to build ventures dedicated to tackling specific climate challenges. In doing so, they are entering an area called “deep tech.” Ben Joffe at SOSV defined deep tech (also DeepTech, Hard Tech, Emerging Tech, Frontier Tech, Science Tech, Physical Tech, Future Tech, etc.) as ventures with 1. Technical risk and 2. Complexity involving the intersection of two or more disciplines, such as physics and chemistry, biology and hardware, material science and analytics, etc. (For perspective on how investors think about this space, see Joffe’s 2019 post on Deep Tech Investing 101.)
Additionally, in starting a venture, folks with PhDs in physics, chemistry or engineering must also start learning about business and finance, areas they may know almost nothing about. Aspiring founders must learn quickly how to form a management team, define their venture, create an entity and start to pitch their idea to secure the funding that will enable them to operate. For most of these intrepid entrepreneurs who are just starting out with their first venture, doing what is needed to find funding may be the hardest part, since they have no prior experience.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of resources dedicated to educating, nurturing and funding DeepTech founders helping them navigate the business formation and ongoing funding process. We are compiling this guide to list resources available for early-stage ventures, borrowing where we can and adding new sources as they come to our attention. We hope this list will help you get the early funding you need to get your venture started!
One of the best resources out there is the Y Combinator Library, which reflects 15 years of learning and publishing on the art of starting a venture. Get YC’s Essential Startup Advice, Elon Musk’s guidance on how to build the future, a guide to seed fundraising and access fundraising templates for SAFE convertible notes, among much more.
Steve Blank, a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned professor, hosts a combination of blog posts, books and video lectures covering a wide range of lessons for tech entrepreneurs on his website, particularly those interested in the lean startup approach.
Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, Caufield and Byers, is the author of “Straight Talk for Startups: 100 Insider Rules for Beating the Odds,” which covers the fundamentals from selecting investors, fundraising, managing boards, to achieving liquidity.
Non-dilutive funding methods
Non-dilutive funding is typically available in the form of grants or loan which do not require the founder to give up any equity in their company. Here’s a quick list of non-dilutive funding sources (courtesy of Hull & Knarr):
- Loans may require a credit check, collateral, and guarantors, if made by a bank, and must be paid back with interest. Better terms if from family or friends.
- Convertible Notes such as the SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) or the KISS (“Keep It Simple Security”) are routinely issued by early-stage ventures to angel “investors” which may be repaid but which are usually intended as equity that will be converted into at a discount to the valuation negotiated in a later round with a professional venture capitalist (which will make them dilutive, if converted).
- Grants are basically free money, and do not need to be repaid. Usually, they area-specific, require the submission of an application and may be limited to the achievement of a specific project or business milestone. And the business is generally required to provide status reports on the project and/or the business milestones. The U.S. Governments provides many types of grants, notably:
1) Department of Energy (DOE) now has $100 million in funding for transformative clean energy technology research and development for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (ARPA-E) OPEN 2021 funding opportunity. This is the first of billions of dollars of DOE R&D opportunities to be announced this year, which President Biden hopes will identify cutting-edge, disruptive clean energy technologies to address the climate crisis. ARPA-e’s most recent Open Funding Announcement round required a concept paper submission by April 6, 2021. ARPA-e also provides Teaming Partner Lists to help entrepreneurs access experts.
2) the Office of Nuclear Energy’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) programs, which provides funding on a regular rolling basis. GAIN’s 2021 funding application has been extended to May 28, 2021.
- SBIR and STTR Programs offer funding from small seed grants for risky research to large, multi-year contracts that support multi-faceted programs. These programs focus primarily on projects that support the US Government through the Department of Defense (DoD), National Institute of Health (NIH), Department of Energy (DoE), and others. (SBIRs/STTRs are a great way for businesses to work out the kinks of their technology and products before reaching full commercialization.)
- Licensing intellectual property allows a company to get upfront payments from industry partners as well as regular monthly or quarterly payments to fund the business and additional development.
- Royalty Financing allows the business to receive cash in exchange for a percentage of the company’s future revenues over a certain period and up to a certain amount.
Non-dilutive funding is valuable to any founder, deeptech or otherwise. The following three grant programs are most geared towards R&D heavy projects and ventures:
To sustain research-driven ideas, the Small Business Administration (SBA) created the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR). On the SBIR website, you can find all of the relevant grants to your field of choice. You must submit a solicited proposal, after which you enter a competitive selection process. The proposal for applying entails a business plan, executive summary, cost proposal, and technical proposal.
- Here are the rules for eligibility, along with guidelines on ownership, non-profits, and more: PDF.
- To begin the application process for SBIR funding, check out this roadmap
Applicants should identify the specific grant or grants that they are looking for on the Solicitations List part of the SBIR website. A “solicitation” is the specific grant opportunity. After locating the desired opportunity, applicants submit a proposal for “Phase I” funding.
If selected, you enter the three-phase program:
“Phase I. The objective of Phase I is to establish the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of the proposed R/R&D efforts and to determine the quality of performance of the small business awardee organization prior to providing further Federal support in Phase II. SBIR Phase I awards normally do not exceed $150,000 total costs for 6 months.
Phase II. The objective of Phase II is to continue the R/R&D efforts initiated in Phase I. Funding is based on the results achieved in Phase I and the scientific and technical merit and commercial potential of the project proposed in Phase II. Only Phase I awardees are eligible for a Phase II award. SBIR Phase II awards normally do not exceed $1,000,000 total costs for 2 years.
Phase III. The objective of Phase III, where appropriate, is for the small business to pursue commercialization objectives resulting from the Phase I/II R/R&D activities. The SBIR program does not fund Phase III. Some Federal agencies, Phase III may involve follow-on non-SBIR funded R&D or production contracts for products, processes or services intended for use by the U.S. Government.”
Winners are granted non-dilutive funding to infuse into their projects.
The SBA also has Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants, which are grants with two significant distinctions from SBIR grants:
- STTR projects require small businesses or startups to team up with a non-profit research institution (universities or federal labs).
- STTR grants are focused on transferring technology from research institutions to small businesses and then to the public marketplace through a three-phase sequence. If you are a university student, we recommend looking further into STTR programs.
All information about SBIR and STTR grants, along with the specific grant programs within them, can be found online at https://www.sbir.gov/.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has grants for a lot of fields that fall under the DeepTech umbrella.
All grants can be found here. According to its website, the NSF accounts for about ¼ of federal support to academic institutions for basic research, with approximately 11,000 proposals granted out of nearly 40,000 every year. Eligibility is based on several factors; here is a comprehensive guide to proposals, awards, and procedures. See the entire NSF grant timeline here.
All grants open and close on their own timelines, so founders should keep track of them and complete the application process accordingly. Each grant has target dates, deadline dates, and submission windows, so make sure to apply on time!
There are grants for everyone from high schoolers to post-doctorates, and from non-profits to research institutions. Some incredibly successful companies were born from NSF grants, including Symantec, Qualcomm, and IntraLase. Many of the companies that win NSF grants go on to raise venture capital from top investors.
The NSF has another funding program that’s separate from its grant funding. It’s called “America’s Seed Fund.” It invests up to $1.75mm of non-dilutive capital over 24+ months directly into impactful, advanced tech startups. Founders retain full ownership over the company and IP. It has very similar terms of eligibility as the SBA SBIR/STTR program, but the differences are that it is housed under the NSF, is geared towards commercially-viable startups, and has a different funding timeline. Best of all, America’s Seed Fund also offers portfolio company support, mentorship, and strategy advice, as opposed to only giving grant funding. Here you can find the portfolio of companies within the seed fund, which, according to CB Insights, has seen 107 exits and $9 billion in private investment since 2014.
Established in 2011, I-Corps offers a curriculum-based, experiential learning opportunity for founders to learn about the commercialization of R&D into an independent startup. To do that, I-Corps focuses on customer discovery and translating research from a laboratory to the public marketplace.
I-Corps emphasizes that it is not about making a business plan or funding a scientific discovery. It is rather about “talking to customers, partners and competitors; encountering the uncertainty and excitement of creating successful innovations, [and] getting out of the university laboratory to explore the commercial potential is what the effort is about.”
I-Corps cohorts run through hubs around the nation and a network of universities: There are 99 Sites and nine I-Corps Nodes nationwide:
- Bay Area Regional I-Corps Node (BA)
- DC/MD/VA Regional I-Corps Node (DMV)
- I-Corps South Node (SOUTH)
- Innovation Node-Los Angeles (IN-LA)
- Midwest I-Corps Node (MWIN)
- New England Regional Innovation Node (NE I-Corps)
- New York City Regional Innovation Node (NYCRIN)
- Southwest Innovation Corps (SWI-Corps)
- UNY I-Corps Node (UNY)
To apply to I-Corps, teams must have three primary members: a technical lead, an entrepreneurial lead, and an I-Corps mentor. There are about 20-30 teams within one cohort. To apply, a team must submit an Executive Summary found here. Linked here is a PDF that goes into greater detail about the solicitation (application) process.
Between 2012 and 2018, there were 63 cohort trainings, 1315 teams, 3745 trained individuals, 271 universities/institutes/colleges, and representation from 47 states, plus D.C and Puerto Rico. Out of these cohorts, there have been a total of 644 startups, almost all fitting within DeepTech, with over $30OM in follow-on funding raised and 6 acquisitions.
To find non-dilutive funding for deeptech ideas and ventures, always be sure to check out:
- University-affiliated departments and research institutions
- Tech Transfer Offices: These are key, as most American research universities have them. They are organizations that help translate academic knowledge and research into possible startups— essentially, they aid in commercialization. We recommend that founders go to Tech Transfer Offices at their universities to talk with people who are familiar with their topic of interest.
- The National Labs. (this section in process)
- Idaho National Laboratory
- Los Alamos National Laboratory
- Oak Ridge National Laboratory
- Government agencies
- Individual granting programs, such as the DOE’s Gateway for Acclerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), which provides access to Lab resources.
- ARPA-E (Energy) Just announced a $100M funding opportunity in support of Biden’s Climate Innovation agenda
- NIH, DARPA, ARPA-C (coming soon?), etc.
- AFWERX (Air Force)
- DIU (Defense Innovation Unit)
- Independent foundations
- Competitions (U.S. and international)
- University pitch competitions (for ventures from current students)
- Bell Labs Prize
- Hello Tomorrow
- SPIE Startup Challenge
- General AI Challenge
- M+Innovation Lab for Energy and Sustainability Challenge – India
- CapitaLand Sustainability X Challenge – Singapore – Feb 17
- The Atmospheric Fund Online Pitch – Canada
- Clean Energy Leadership Institute – USA
- EnergyLab Scaleup Program – Australia
- Elia Group Open Innovation Challenge – Germany
- Zayed Sustainability Prize – UAE
- New Energy Nexus Indonesia Accelerator – Rolling
- New Energy Nexus Vietnam Accelerator – Rolling
- New Energy Nexus Philippines Accelerator – Rolling
- DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Funding – USA – Rolling
- Climatebase Fellowship – Rolling
- Clean Energy Trust – USA – Rolling
- Startupbootcamp Scale & Startup programs – Australia – Rolling
- Third Derivative – Rolling
Unlike grants and other non-dilutive funding, dilutive funding comes with additional benefits like broader networks, more press/promotion, and access to skilled advisors. You can also raise a lot more with dilutive funding.
Tech Incubators/Accelerators & Venture Studios
There are a growing number of tech incubators which will provide space, funding and mentorship to tech ventures typically at a very early stage. All of them have different parameters for the types of ventures that they’ll work with, some requiring you be local and some not, so research what is near you. Here is a sampling:
- Y Combinator (Palo Alto) pioneered a new model, working intensively with ompanies for three months, to get them into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present their companies to a carefully selected audience. Thereafter, the Y Combinator network continues to help founders for the life of their company, and beyond.
- Cyclotron Road (Berkeley), recruits a cohort of entrepreneurial scientists and engineers from around the world. For two years, these innovators are embedded in the Berkeley research ecosystem, where they are provided with funding, access to Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, plus a program of intensive mentorship, professional development, and networking. The goal is to empower technical entrepreneurs to mature their ideas from concept to first product, positioning them to align with the most suitable commercial path to bring their technology to scale.
- Corporate sponsored incubators, such as SAP’s (SAP.iO is SAP’s corporate venture capital fund and accelerators with over 200 portfolio startups and SAP.iO Foundries, SAP’s global network of top-tier startup accelerator programs that enable startups to build innovative software that deliver value for SAP customers. They have a no-equity ask program which provides access to SAP APIs, SAP technologies, and opportunities for exposure to SAP customers.)
- TechStars is a worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. They host 3-month long accelerator programs that provide funding, mentorship, and access to the Techstars network for life. Their application period are open six times a year for distinctive incubators located around the world.
- Build a Climate Start Up (Paris, a new venture studio for tech ventures launching mid-2021.)
- See the SEED-DB database of global incubators and accelerators created by Jed Christiansen (at 190 and growing), sortable by geographic area and other parameters.
Here’s a list of the top Venture Capital firms most-active in deep tech, most of which require a “warm” introduction:
- Bessemer Venture Partners
- Breakthrough Energy Ventures
- Data Collective VC
- Eclipse VC
- Energy Impact Partners
- Founders Fund
- Insight Venture Partners
- Khosla Ventures
- Lux Capital
- Playground Global
- Prime Movers Lab
Note on VC Investment:
Each VC firm has specific preferences and requirements on how they go about the funding process. The best strategy is to simplify your startup as much as possible, and run a dedicated process where you reach out (through warm intros) to the right investors at your target funds. Keep in mind that founders will often talk to dozens of funds before they complete a round. Remember the key distinctions about deep tech: it’s complex, it’s capital intensive, and it’s research-heavy. Try to ease investors’ concerns here. Experienced investors in this sector understand that you won’t have the same traction as a bootstrappable app, but will want to see other signs of progress.
Benjamin Joffe at SOSV has laid out common deeptech investing risks, and what investors look for:
- Team: investors are looking for scientist-entrepreneurs. Not one or the other, but both.
- Go-to-market: an important concept for any startup, but in deeptech, it’s important to get active feedback from your target users to ensure they understand the product/service.
- Geography: the broader deeptech ecosystem is important and lucrative. Founders should be active members in it for the full benefits.
- Fundability: the biggest factor— deeptech startups must be research-driven and commercialized. Will the investors get a return?
- Deep Tech Investing Report 2020, by Different Funds, Inc.
- The Engine: Tough Tech Landscape 2019,by MIT and The Engine
- Financing the Deep Tech Revolution: How investors assess risks in Key Enabling Technologies (KETs), by European Investment Bank
- 101 ways to lose money in deeptech angel investing, by Deep Science Ventures
- The state of US science and engineering 2020, by NSF
- Deeptech Trends 2019, by SOSV
- Raising Capital from the DOD, one of the best overviews of the pros and cons of engaging with the Department of Defense was shared by Steve Blank here.
- Other US Government Grants
- A collection of deeptech reports, by Hello Tomorrow
- Contrary Capital: Is a different kind of venture fund, as they try to identify the entrepreneur when they are just coming out of school and then they just fund whatever they do. (And credit to them for much of the initial data we used to start this list.)