“Our aim is to build ‘Holy Grail’ companies”: Dominic Falcao from Deep Science Ventures

Deep Science Ventures (DSV) is turning innovation upside down: the venture-focused science institute identifies problems in pharmaceuticals and energy first and then assembles teams of scientists and engineers to solve them.

Dominic Falcao and Dr Mark Hammond, DSV’s founders, have spent nearly a decade helping to launch and foster over 50 companies, some of which have been acquired by Facebook, Google and Spotify.

Founder Dominic Falcao talks about how to create a ‘Holy Grail’ company and why entrepreneurialism is over mythologised.


Why did you decide to set up DSV?

When I was helping run the Imperial College accelerator programme, I noticed that most exits were companies working on software. This was despite the fact that software engineers made up a minority of the population of the university. The vast majority of Imperial College is made up of scientists and hardware engineers.

Mark Hammond and I both started thinking about how we might ensure that it was as easy for scientists to start companies as software engineers.

There are some challenges. First, it’s harder to come up with good ideas. Challenges and problems solvable by scientific innovation tend to be one step removed from everyday life.

Second, software teams can mostly be made up of software engineers. But when you’re commercialising science, the most successful teams are, in most cases, made up from different disciplines.

Finally, there is a problem of incentivisation. The way universities are structured, and their general culture, means start-up creation is serendipitous rather than reliable. We wanted to build an environment where the culture was entirely driven towards creating impactful, applied science.

Our aim is to build ‘Holy Grail’ companies that can replace incumbents. What would the next GSK look like were you to build it entirely on cutting-edge science? What does the next Shell look like were you to build it today using multi-disciplinary scientists?

We’re looking for killer interventions that deploy insights from multiple scientific fields and result in high-growth, high-impact companies.

What are your teams focusing on now?

We find a number of topics that we think are under-addressed. For each of these, we recruit a “Founding Analyst” – an entrepreneurial scientist who is passionate about that topic – to understand the landscape and then found a company or companies to take advantage of the biggest opportunities.

In the energy sector, we are looking at battery . We’ve just completed a meta-analysis of research that has been conducted and a post-mortem of more than 100 battery companies. We’ve identified a critical need around which we’re now building a company.

We are looking at off-shore wind. One of the biggest opportunities for the UK in particular is to pioneer wind turbines that aren’t moored on solid ground. At the moment, you need a rig to moor wind turbines the way you would moor an offshore oil rig. It’s extraordinarily expensive. It costs tens of thousands of pounds per day. We’re looking at ways of deploying robotics to enable rig-less offshore mooring.

Why are you based at Plexal?

We were looking for a place that had the right mix of start-up culture and hard tech and deep tech companies. We wanted a culture of openness and public exposure, and a place that had links with universities. Plexal offered a fantastic value site with everything that we needed.

How common is it to find scientists with strong entrepreneurial skills?

In my mind, entrepreneurialism is over mythologised. There’s this idea that people are born entrepreneurial but I’m not sure that’s borne out by experience.

All entrepreneurs were first-time entrepreneurs at one point. And not everyone who had a lemonade stall when they were five turns out to be an entrepreneur. There’s a lot of survivorship bias.

Often those with PhDs don’t realise that the scientific process is the basis of good entrepreneurship. If you’re familiar with lean-start-up methodology, it’s the same: generate hypotheses, run experiments, do not get too attached to your idea, move quickly, take criticism.

A PhD is a four-year degree working on a single problem. During that time, you’ll probably find that what you’re developing doesn’t work, multiple times. And you’ll probably have to formulate detailed pitches to show if and why it does. Often this process can shape people into entrepreneurs.

It’s probably easier for a PhD to learn how to write pitch deck than an MBA to learn how molecular chemistry works. We’re talking about the smartest people we can find. Learning how business works isn’t a massive hurdle.

Dominic Falcao will be speaking on the panel ‘Matching Talent to Deep Tech – Creating Teams for Commercial Success’ on November 8th at the Funding for Deep Technology Fair. Book a ticket to find out more about how to hone your Deep Tech team to achieve commercial success.

Funding for Deep Technology Fair