Top Five Innovations to Watch in the Coming Decade


Xconomy Seattle — 

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 FDA reform, and there are those who want to tear down the patents where the United States is winning in this field.

4. Merger of the ‘Cloud’ Computing and Mobile Devices. These innovations are already here, and saying it is important is almost cliché, but the idea of a PC is becoming more and more distant as one can access immense centralized computing power and information anywhere and anytime. The productivity increases and the decentralization of the ability to mine data will create huge productivity gains everywhere, from the consumer sector to medicine, to the industrial sector. Driving data access to users 24/7 will enable all of us to stay connected, stay healthier, and will continue to provide tension to marriages across the globe.

5. In-Vivo Cell Potentiation. Recent discoveries in stem cell biology and the new field of epigenetics have unlocked the ability to design drugs that can be delivered to the body and can cause cells in the body to change. Some call this “transdifferentiation,” but basically it is using drugs to trigger the body’s own ability to cure itself using our own cells, not cells from a petri dish. Melanoma cells can be given signals to change into normal skin cells. Soon we will be able to tell the body to grow more new heart tissue, to grow new pancreas cells to cure diabetes, and even to fix our own bones faster. Someday we may be able to cause regeneration of limbs and organs. If you do not believe me, ponder this—if a human infant’s finger is severed at the first joint before 3 months of age, it will grow back normally, just like a newt’s tail. After that, it won’t grow back at all. The genes are just dormant, ready to be awakened by the right signal.

Bonus Trend (to be ignored at our peril): China. Despite predictions to the contrary, the United States will remain the global force in fundamental innovation in the next decade, and will increase its lead over Europe. I am not talking number of patents-but fundamental discoveries that will change the world. China will be the exception—they will make strides in their own internal innovation. Some of the best and brightest are returning to China, and it is actually becoming much easier to start companies there. Their government seems to be making innovation easier and ours seems intent on making it harder (in spite of good intentions). While the United States total research funding will still dwarf the rest of the world and our lead in interdisciplinary technology and fundamental innovation will survive, our peril is in applications development and deployment. We will invent 90 percent of the clean-tech innovations that matter, but we have already lost the thin-film solar market to China and Europe because we could not fund it, scale it and had no domestic market development. We lost to China and the EU even though their solar industry is mostly based on technology from the United States.

Innovation is one area where we can be proud. These five innovations are the tip of the iceberg. Let us hope our policy makers can hear our pleas and enhance, not penalize the infrastructure that will drive these inventions of the next decade and beyond.

[Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of posts from Xconomists and other technology leaders from around the country who are weighing in with the Top 5 innovations they’ve seen in their respective fields the past 10 years, or the Top 5 disruptive technologies that will impact the next decade.]

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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5 responses to “Top Five Innovations to Watch in the Coming Decade”

  1. 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.