Deep Tech’s Deep Secret: Narrative

Gabe Kleinman
5 min readApr 18, 2024

From climate tech to biotech, nailing a full-stack narrative is necessary for technical company-builders today.

Venture capital investment in “deep tech” — classically defined as technology having to overcome scientific, engineering, and business risks in service of solving big challenges — has surged in recent years. Today these represent over 20% of all venture funding, up from 10% just a decade ago according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

In that same time, startups have been forced to refocus on the basics of business-building due to a war over talent, higher interest rates, and pressure to pursue profitability sooner in its lifecycle. Deep tech founders at the earliest stages have traditionally focused largely, if not exclusively, on their product or service. While understandable, this approach now carries with it a steep opportunity cost and existential risk.

We have entered a new world requiring a refined skill set.

The Basics: Talent, Revenue, Fundraising — and Narrative

While there are a host of variables in building any deep tech company, the needs can be summed up in three primary categories: attracting and retaining the best team, getting to revenue through effective sales and marketing, and fundraising from investors to fuel growth.

The bright thread running through these core company needs is a clear, compelling narrative.

A broad diversity of people — potential employees, customers, venture investors, media, politicians, and more — must not only comprehend, but be moved to make a big idea successful, according to my former colleague

. Consider non-technical recruits like finance and operations required to build your company, generalist investors at the earliest and growth stages, buyer decision-makers without subject matter expertise, and even policymakers establishing funding/tax incentives and guardrails.

Only a small subset of these groups are able to decipher and evaluate the technical aspects of your business, and therefore the onus is on you to meet them where they are.

Purpose and Positioning Are Prerequisites

The story you share — verbally and visually, in boardrooms, back rooms, and broadcast channels — must be anchored in something accessible to all.

Starting with and stating your purpose succinctly — your desired impact serving an intended audience — is a necessary first step in crafting the narrative. This is something that should roll off your tongue in every conversation, presentation, and digital activation, to the point where you “repeat yourself so often you get sick of hearing yourself say it.” A clearly articulated purpose is especially valuable for deep tech companies and can serve as a magnet for talent.

How you position your company in the market is a required next step. The strategies needed to grow your company — recruiting and retention, sales, marketing, and fundraising — can all draw upon a well-defined positioning. This will not only inform how you identify your primary customer and where you deliver the message (e.g. website, content, social, earned media, sales collateral, fundraising decks), but can help drive a clearer understanding of the competitive landscape, your differentiation, and even hone your product strategy.

Right Story, Right Resolution, Right Audience, Right Time

Some of the most innovative and impactful technologies take years to develop, and can only realize their potential with an adaptable narrative.

Take Recursion (NASDAQ: RXRX), a techbio platform harnessing AI and machine vision to dramatically accelerate drug discovery. While the company has made promising progress over the years with a pipeline of assets (some optioned by big pharma), it has yet to receive full FDA approval for any of its molecules since its founding in 2013 and beyond its April 2021 IPO. How then has it been able to secure partnerships from industry titans and attract both technology and biopharma talent to relocate their lives to its headquarters in Utah?

Since well before the company took to public markets, Recursion Co-founder and CEO

has acknowledged the importance of narrative:

“I’m a scientist. But learning to tell the story of Recursion, to share a truthful narrative that highlights the potential of our company, was one of the most important things I could do as CEO.”

The company was also prepared with a versatile-yet-consistent, and context-specific, narrative.

Chris again: “To get people excited and across the line, we didn’t have to tell the whole story. We could tell a higher-level overview about drug discovery. We simplified the story the first time, and were ready to peel back the onion as people were more and more interested.”

This even applied to tactics like social media to drive results, where he “imagined that it would help us hire…but I’ve been surprised [by] influential people in the industry…talking about how we’re one of the most innovative startups due to our culture [and other factors you’d find only in social feeds].”

Without a product in the market, narrative can be the most valuable asset you have nailing the story with appropriate resolution to the right target when it matters.

Speak The Truth

In your ambition you may be tempted to build a story that stretches beyond your ability to solve scientific and engineering risk. We know how this can end. In this respect, the language that you use is critical to ensuring a truthful story that brings people along.

A good example is Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a developer of tokamak-based nuclear fusion technology, which talks about its product more as “strong potential” than a guarantee. Founded in 2018 and as of 2024, the headline on its website describes the work as “the surest path to limitless, clean fusion energy.” The “path” is emerging: nuclear fusion that generates more energy output than its input was demonstrated in December 2022. CFS has raised over $2 billion from both investors and the federal government to date, and CEO Bob Mumgaard striking the right balance is to thank for it.

This ultimately requires being honest with yourself in order to be honest with others.

You’re Not Alone

The biggest challenges in the world — climate change adaptation, addressing labor shortages with robotics and automation, and much more — increasingly require deep tech innovation, and establishing and scaling a company that brings the tech to market is hard work.

While you may have a PhD in a scientific field, you may not be a story expert — and crafting a full-stack narrative deployable across your company is not as simple as it may appear. The good news is that there are a number of talented agencies and experts — positioning, communications, brand, growth, media, and more — ready to help.

Deep tech companies securing this type of assistance have been rewarded, time and again. In 1961, IBM hired design visionaries Charles and Ray Eames to curate its pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Their exhibition was intended to simultaneously elevate computers’ positive impact in the world while downplaying their threats. Their target buyers were largely government and business, and still the company found itself simplifying the story for all fairgoers. The Eameses nailed the narratives of computers’ potential, solving “issues both commonplace and complex — from organizing the seating chart for a dinner party to city planning.”

The earlier in your journey you focus on your narrative needs, the earlier you will be able to deploy them in service of your growth. Your business, and our world, will both benefit.

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