Top Five Innovations to Watch in the Coming Decade

1/7/10

The next decade will see the realization of many of the buzzwords of the last decade. The combination of the information era, the biotechnology revolution, and materials breakthroughs will drive new medical and cleantech inventions that will change our lives. The future of innovation in the United States is promising at its core and we will win unless policy makers accidentally harm innovation. They seem to be trying to do just that, in spite of their rhetoric, by doubling capital gains taxes on investors who fund job-creating cleantech and medical breakthroughs, proposing revised patent laws to penalize innovations, and accidentally constraining capital markets for high-tech with onerous regulations.

Still, here are the five innovations to watch in the coming decade:

1. The Return of Nanotechnology. Although much maligned as a “bubble,” this fundamental set of materials technologies that can unlock new physical properties and combinations of materials has been percolating away. Look for major innovations in solar energy that can produce electricity at 6 cents per kilowatt hour and which will compete with conventional power without subsidy. These are in the field now and will blow away the current big names in solar thermal, concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) and thin film solar. New battery innovations on flexible substrates and new form factors that are 2-5 times more efficient than current lithium ion batteries will emerge from the laboratory.

2. Industrial Applications of Synthetic Biology. Many people think the word “synthetic biology” is a marketing word for “biology.” That is mostly true, but the technical strides in sequencing and synthesis of genes into complex systems is nothing short of mind-boggling. The folks who will succeed here are not the providers of the biology, but those who understand and own the biology AND can integrate it into industries like fuel, and agriculture. Companies like Sapphire Energy are already developing technologies that will revolutionize fuels and agriculture as we know it. The United States will produce our own green crude oil at home and at huge scale by 2020.

3. P4 Medicine. A term coined by Leroy Hood to embody Personalized, Predictive, Preventive, and Participatory medicine. This technology will come of age. Driven by new cost reductions in the ability to sequence human genomes, we will finally be able to understand who will get disease, detect the disease early, and administer medicines that will work, only to those who need it. Medicine will be more cost effective and more targeted and “Smart pills” will be better and cheaper than expensive hospitals. The biggest barriers here are political—none of this will happen without … Next Page »

Robert Nelsen is a co-founder and a Managing Director of ARCH Venture Partners. He focuses on biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and nanotechnology. Follow @

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  • http://www.zytechsolar.us David Scott Lewis

    This is one of the best posts that I’ve ever read — written by a VC.

    I would caution Mr. Nelson, however, in his claim that nano in solar “will blow away the current big names in solar thermal, concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) and thin film solar.” Reason: They’re not mutually exclusion. We’re working on nano/MEMS and LCPV, for example.

    Regarding China, it’s really a question of whether Americans want green energy or green jobs. Unfortunately, it’s a dyadic choice. I oversee our standard solar modules (panels) manufacturing plant in China and my factory workers with 2 years experience get paid 1/8th the U.S. federal minimum wage. The China price is tough to beat, mainly because labor costs are so low here. (I’m in Qingdao, a major port/resort city in north China.) This is just a key example of where China shines. But when it comes to innovation, well, I’m a bit more skeptical about China’s future, especially in basic research. I like to tell my Chinese friends in China that “our Chinese are better than your Chinese,” i.e., that America has the best Chinese. And this still holds true, even though many sea turtles are returning to their homeland.