Six West Coast Tech Leaders Share Top Developments of 2017

Xconomy asked technology and innovation leaders around our network to reflect on the most important developments in their industries during 2017, and the answers were appropriately wide-ranging.

Responses from individuals in Seattle and San Diego touch on the rapid advance of machine learning, tech’s full-scale invasion of digital health, dramatic growth in blockchain and cryptocurrency, an outpouring of private support for computer science at University of Washington (perennially a top recipient of federal research funding), and the spreading awareness of the perils of social media and A.I.

Here now are responses, edited for clarity, from Mark Bowles, co-founder of medical diagnostics startup Truvian Sciences; Dennis Clerke, CEO of adtech company Ad-Juster; Ben Gilbert, interim CEO of e-sports startup Taunt and co-founder of Pioneer Square Labs; University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska; Daniel Schwartz, director of the UW Clean Energy Institute; and Anne Weiler, CEO of healthtech company Wellpepper. Bowles, Clerke, and Lazowska are also Xconomists.

Mark Bowles: I think 2017 is the year that social media users really woke up to the potential hazards of those platforms, including social media’s potential for being addictive and unhealthy, how confirmation bias can divide us all, and how social media can have massive and not-so-benign influence over us all with false news.

Second, and related, there is a growing awareness/concern about the power of A.I.’s potential to influence and affect the course of humanity. Many of our current technology heroes, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have ominous views of A.I.’s potential, and I share their concerns.

Finally, I think 2017 was also the year that the “quantified self” movement really gained traction. While that movement is currently restricted mostly to the number of steps taken, heart rate, calories burned, sleep, and hydration, it will undoubtedly evolve with the introduction of new devices, wearable and otherwise, to include substantive health and wellness metrics like real-time blood diagnostics, genomics, and the microbiome. I believe we are on the precipice of a new era where consumers will be able to manage their own health and wellness fairly effectively through these technologies and algorithms that actively monitor so many biomedical metrics.

Dennis Clerke: In 2017, I was struck by the propagation of interest and enthusiasm for blockchain and cryptocurrency. Early in the year, I started hearing about businesses built on blockchain and Ethereum and started paying closer attention. By mid-year the adoption was especially strong among millennials, and while visiting my son at college, the engineering students were buzzing with excitement about the technology transformation underway that would influence commerce and online obligations. Now, Bitcoin and cryptocurrency are all over the mainstream press and are the topic of conversation among baby boomers. I see this as a big transformation that will impact people all over the world in the next decade.

Ben Gilbert: Advancements in machine learning have raised the expectations for every technology product. In 1999, every company was expected to have a website. in 2010, every company was expected to have an app. Today, every product is expected to have a level of intelligence baked in to anticipate user actions and make their lives easier. The development of off-the-shelf tools from cloud providers that can be used on a company’s proprietary data enables even startups to take advantage of these advancements.

Ed Lazowska: Thanks to hundreds of individual and corporate friends, it has been an amazing year for computer science at the University of Washington, which will pay off for the region long into the future. In January, construction began on a second building that will provide the space to double our enrollment. In March, we became the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, recognizing gifts from Mr. Allen and from Microsoft. In October, our new building was given a name—the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering—thanks to gifts made in honor of the Gateses by 13 couples who are long-time friends of theirs, plus Microsoft. In December, we celebrated the halfway point in construction and a gift from the Gateses that completed fundraising for the building, and funding to increase enrollment was included in the governor’s budget (although there is a lot of sausage yet to be made). We are incredibly grateful to be part of this amazing community!

Anne Weiler: In 2017, we saw significant signals and investment from major technology companies into healthcare. While we’ve seen this before with both Google and Microsoft trying and failing to build personal health records, in 2017 we saw rumblings from Amazon, with AWS building out a dedicated healthcare group, and exploration of pharmacy licensing; we saw Alphabet subsidiary Verily and Apple separately embarking on patient-facing heart studies; and we saw Microsoft making further investments in health from their research group. These players are already having a positive impact on the market with greater acceptance of patient-generated data as a legitimate source of insights, interest in voice as a patient and clinical interface, and hype on the power of A.I. in healthcare, all of which are putting pressure on the incumbent players, from healthcare IT to payers and providers. This horserace is far from over, but we’re excited at the potential to dramatically accelerate innovation in healthcare. With these giants leading the way, we’ll see better and faster technology adoption, and a consumer focus.

Daniel Schwartz: M&A activity in the cleantech sector continues to be strong. Washington energy companies Demand Energy and Avista were acquired in 2017, following three other acquisitions in 2016 (1Energy Systems, EnerG2, Powerit Solutions). Continuing to cultivate global corporate strategic investments and acquisitions is critical for the vitality of the Northwest cleantech sector.

Photo credit: Composite photo of the 2017 total eclipse of the sun by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts sharing thoughts from technology leaders about 2017 trends and 2018 forecasts.]

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