This January I will have been working in Cambridge’s tech sector for 100 months. During this time I have helped Cambridge-based start-ups, University spin-outs and SMEs that have developed a wide variety of technologies to protect their intellectual property (IP) – some of the technologies have been game-changing, and others may have been a little ahead of their time! Many of the companies I have worked with have attracted talent and investment from all over the world, helping Cambridge to retain its position as one of the most vibrant and successful tech hubs in Europe. I have also learnt that new tech comes in waves, following fashions in academia or consumer demands, and so in this article I look at the tech and IP that might turn from ripple to tsunami in 2020.
My first prediction will come as no surprise to most: the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques and the applications of AI will advance at break-neck speed. The commercial importance of AI is evidenced by its increased patent protection, and it was recently reported in “WIPO Technology Trends 2019” that nearly half (around 170,000) of patent applications for AI-related inventions have been published since 2013. Two of the four largest AI patent filers, Microsoft and Samsung, have research teams in Cambridge. Local AI start-ups will also continue attracting investment and acquisition interest from the global tech giants, demonstrated recently by the acquisition by Apple of Spectral Edge, an image technology company that uses machine learning to improve picture and video quality. So we can expect an important local contribution to AI growth.
I also predict that 2020 will see the number of multi-disciplinary companies grow. Just recently we have learnt that AI is more accurate than doctors in diagnosing breast cancer from mammograms. Increased adoption of AI by the life science and biotech sectors is thus expected, including for drug discovery (e.g. Healx), or to make predictions about treatment response (e.g. Cambridge Cancer Genomics). I also hope to see synthetic biology and the merging of physics/engineering with the biosciences become more prevalent. Many of us wear smartwatches that collect biometric data, such as heart rate, but maybe this year we will see the launch of wearable devices that contain biosensors to measure, in real-time, organic compounds or bacteria.
Climate change poses serious threats to the environment, so I imagine that ‘green start-ups’ and companies focused on sustainability will become more important this year. In the last decade, European patent applications relating to self-driving vehicles (SDVs) – which are considered more environmentally-friendly – outstripped the baseline growth across all technologies twenty-fold. Perhaps surprisingly, the top four applicants were not car companies, but multi-disciplinary companies such as Samsung, Intel, Qualcomm and LG. Of course, SDVs will continue to attract interest, but so will companies developing new environmentally-friendly materials or improved techniques for recycling plastics.
In January, many of us will be trying to consume less meat or go vegan, either for health or environmental reasons. As the appetite for meat substitutes continues to grow, I expect that companies developing plant-based meat substitutes or synthetic meat will attract more interest. More generally, the agritech sector will continue developing techniques to ensure that yields match the demands of the burgeoning global population. For example, I suspect we will see wider adoption of ‘smart farms’ that use Internet of Things technologies, robots and AI for precision farming.
How about you – do you agree or disagree with my tech trend predictions, or have any of your own?