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Disruptive technologies?

July 4, 2018

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VC company Tällt Ventures brought together a panel of judges from Microsoft, Google, Uber, Sainsbury’s and others under the banner of “Disrupt 100” to select the start-up businesses “with the most potential to influence, change, or create new global markets”.  Innovations that had a social benefit were particularly highlighted. They tackled this challenging task, grouping contenders together in themes:

  • Social impact enterprises
  • AI
  • Biotech
  • Space tech spin-offs

Many investors are now looking at the social impact of businesses as a KPI.  Examples on the list include:

  • Jupiter Intelligence which provides a tool for urban planners to assess flood risk using real-time satellite data and machine learning to assess the effects of climate change, rising sea-levels and erosion
  • Callisto is a platform for college students to report unwanted sexual harassment; now being extended into workplace versions
  • Flow Neuroscience, a personal medical device that treats depression by stimulating and suppressing parts of the brain using very weak electrical currents.

 We’ve seen many developments in AI in recent years and the judges saw these having a real impact very soon.  They selected:

  • Sophia Genetics, providing enhanced genomic diagnostics, specifically for cancers
  • CallSign uses AI to build a picture of the user and trigger an alert if it detects unusual behaviour.
  • Textio is an “augmented writing” platform helps recruiters improve the content of their postings and changes the way businesses use language. Small tweaks can change the appeal of an advert and targeted to specific groups: in one case the female response rate increased from 10% to 57%.

Biotech has long been one of our megatrends. In this category the judges were looking at those developments that would support sustainable consumption.

  • Memphis Meat, which produces lab-cultured meat thereby reducing water use, and includes amongst its backers Bill Gates and Richard Branson
  • Algiknit is developing a sustainable “BioYarn” that can quickly biodegrade after its use-life is over using alginate, a biopolymer derived from kelp
  • Envigreen Biotech produces starch-based substitutes for plastic bags that are 100% organic and recyclable; some of the inputs are vegetable waste bought from farmers in southern India, thereby also providing a boost to the local economy.
  • Douxmatok is looking to change the way we taste sugar, making it more potent so people consume less of it – ideally, around 30% less. A “drug carrier” transports the sugar molecules directly to the body’s sugar receptors enhancing its impact.

The fourth category was rather anomalous: “unfathomable science”, mainly space technology spin-offs. The highlights were:

  • General Fusion are developing fusion energy called Magnetized Target Fusion (hydrogen atoms fused together by heating to high temperatures); fusion energy could be relatively cheap, and of course doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.
  • Zero Mass Water have developed hydro panels to produce water using only sunlight and air from the natural humidity – a huge benefit in water-starved areas and refugee camps.
  • EnergyNova design and manufacture longer-lasting hydrogen-fuel batteries which overcome the limitations of lithium batteries.
  • Axelspace uses 50 satellites to take pictures of the world every day, and is building a space data API for anyone to use; applications are boundless.

The range of innovations on the list is startling – from nano-technology satellites to portaloos that use no water and convert waste into energy; from automated quantum chemistry to “increasing pregnancy possibilities via smartphones”!

But what I found interesting was that so many innovations targeted at social benefit are seen by a VC firm to be serious investment opportunities. Maybe this signals a change in corporate priorities.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Prinicipal.

NB: none of the above represents an investment recommendation by either Huw Williams or SAMI Consulting.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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