Q&A  | 

Arnaud de la Tour: connecting startups with global players and the technology of tomorrow

Tags: 'Data ethics' 'Digital transformation' 'Ética de datos' 'Future of work' 'Innovación pública' 'Tecnología'


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CEO of Hello Tomorrow, a company dedicated to bridging deep tech start-ups with investors and mature companies, Arnaud de la Tour is passionate about technology and what it can do to improve the world. He spoke with us to share his views on the role deep tech and start-ups play in disrupting various industries, and how The Collider drives positive connections between the two.

What is Hello Tomorrow? Who created it and what is the purpose?

I co-created Hello Tomorrow in 2011 with a friend from engineering school. We saw that a lot of research scientists were doing amazing things, but the entrepreneurial spirit was definitely not in academia at the time. Nobody was concerned about whether the research would have an impact. We decided to create a competition in 2014 and received 1,500 applications, encouraging us to organise events to gather the pioneers together to give them visibility among venture capitalists and big industrial companies. 

Fast-forward to 2020: Hello Tomorrow operates with two main objectives. The first is about building a community, which we do through our start-up competition that attracts more than 5,000 applications annually from all over the world. This community also includes organising events, such as deep tech days, VIP events to connect venture capitalists with start-ups (including an online programme), and an event focused on women in deep tech. 

And the second is to provide consulting services regarding strategy and innovation to governments, corporations, and start-ups to help them accelerate their businesses or build new businesses leveraging emerging technology. 

Half of our team is focused on building the community through events, and the other half on the  consulting services. The two halves are interlinked because the consulting helps us connect with corporations, and then we can connect them to start-ups to bring value to the community. 

Is there a connection between Hello Tomorrow and BCG?

BCG is a strategic partner, and we’ve had a fruitful collaboration. From 2016 to 2019, it was about creating the story around deep tech: the strategy and framework for how tech innovation works, how deep tech is different, and how to invest in tech. We were able to publish several reports on our websites that, I believe, have been instrumental in the success of the deep tech concept.

We do a lot of projects with BCG because our companies are complementary. BCG has a lot of clients and a unique skill set, and we bring our own skills as well as our own dynamic network. We’ve developed a very efficient methodology to work with big companies that want to be involved in something that’s not their core business, and we have many great upcoming projects, especially around sustainability. If you want to solve climate change, you cannot do so with only software. Software is just a layer on top of physical infrastructure that can make it more efficient, but it’s not going to change how you produce things. Deep tech can change the way you produce things and is therefore an important enabler of societal transformation.

What is deep tech for you? What do you offer to scientists, universities, and research centres?

There are different levels of deep tech. The first level is all the technologies that are mature enough to have concrete applications, but still require significant R&D to reach their full potential. I think there is a new innovation wave because we have a lot of new technologies – digital, biotech hardware, and so on – and intersection is possible because these technologies are mature enough to interact with each other and to have interdisciplinary teams working together to innovate. Naturally, the second level is about the convergence of these technologies.

The third level is about a new approach to innovation and R&D to bring breakthrough science to the market. In short, it’s about the Lean start-up methodology being applied everywhere and in every domain, including in nuclear fusion. That’s what makes it a real revolution.

What are the main differences between science-based spin-offs and start-ups?

There’s not necessarily a difference. Oftentimes, start-ups that are spin-offs are really tech-driven and come from a technology, not from a market need. This is an asset because IP is a protection that can prevent anybody else from entering the market, but it can sometimes lead to problems, like being interested in the technology instead of the problem. The reality is, nobody wants to buy your technology – they want you to fix the problem they have. Another problem is when a scientist who’s not a good entrepreneur wants to be the CEO or wants to have almost all the shares, which can create issues further down the line.

We did an analysis with BCG which shows that even though the first years of a startup (3 or 4 years) is more expensive in deep tech as there is more R&D, over the lifetime of a start-up, let’s say the first 10 years, it’s actually less expensive in deep tech because the IP is a good barrier to entry and you don’t need to compete by burning cash to acquire new customers faster than your competitors. That being said, there’s also the difference that deep tech often carries a market risk and technical risk, which is different from the focus of startups and VCs from the last decades which were digital platforms, e-commerce, etc. with no technology risk, or medical biotech with high technology risk but no market risk (if your drug works people will pay for it).

Which are the most important European deep tech ecosystems and emerging hubs?

In Europe, compared to China or the US, it’s very fragmented. In China, you have Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing. In the US, you have Silicon Valley and Boston. In Europe, there are many, many hubs. We have a large number of small ecosystems that are very strong in specific domains, and with that in mind, it doesn’t work like with Facebook or Uber where just one winner takes it all. 

There’s more room for local ecosystems to grow, but there’s also the challenge of scaling and connecting those ecosystems to a worldwide network of venture capitalists or potential clients. European countries are large enough for companies to become big in a local market first, but they’re too small for start-ups to become huge companies. While it’s possible in China or the US to have a local giant that goes abroad, in countries like France or Spain, if you stay in your local market for a few years and then move onto the global playing field, you will be a small player.

What kind of relationships does Hello Tomorrow have with other global ecosystems? How does the company work in Asia, the US, or Latin America?

We often have the same mission, but we also sometimes we target similar clients and we have similar business models. And even though we’d like to work with everybody, we are therefore sometimes in competition because we also have the business of getting money from the same people. 

But quite often we are actually complementary, and wWe have about 80 structured partnerships where we know exactly what we need to do to help one another be successful. And then we have about 700 loose partnerships where we just say, ‘Okay, let’s communicate about each other’s actions. So, you’re launching a challenge – we’ll share that in our newsletter and social media,’ and vice versa. That’s the way we work with other ecosystems, accelerators, incubators, VCs, and universities – helping each other when and where we can.

Why do you think initiatives like The Collider are important?

I think our missions are aligned, and you never have all the players you might need in your ecosystem, so it’s important that there’s some porosity or connections between the two ecosystems. For example, maybe some of the investors from our community might be interested in start-ups in your network, or the other way around. 

In addition, you can either have a loose collaboration, where you simply maintain communication to get a small return with minimal effort, or you can do something big, like running a program or organising an event together. But, the latter requires commitment. That’s a key takeaway for future collaborations – either choose the easiest thing or make a real commitment.

What is a quote you think of often when it comes to life and/or work?

Vinod Khosla once said: ‘The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea’. And frankly, I couldn’t agree more.