The Responsible and Ethical Funding of Important Emerging Technologies for the 21st Century

I had a meeting this week with one of the first VC firms I ever worked for. At the fag end of the era they made a bit of money, then lost it all and more chasing those elusive short-term returns. 15 years later an incarnation of the fund is still in business, looking for deals where £250k can generate a few million within 2 to 3 years, which I suppose is why they are still  limping along rather than roaring. A VC who won’t take a risk is like a dog that won’t bark.

After 20 years in this game I can usually look an investor in the eye and tell within a few minutes whether a deal is possible. The ones who get it will always try to find a way to make a deal work, even if we can’t agree terms in the end, whereas those who don’t get it will always try to pick holes in things to find an excuse to turn a deal down. Sometime you are really unlucky and get one of these folks on a company board, and in contrast to great investors who pour all their accumulated wisdom and experience into the enterprise, they just produce negative comments which create masses of unproductive work. Still, with experience comes wisdom, and every investor who says no gets you a little closer to the one who will say yes.

So if it’s tough enough to get a company with solid IP and products funded, what about the funding of longer-term technologies such as those we identified via the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Emerging Technologies?

I suspect that the venture capital industry will be of little help for most of the technologies we identify as being significant. A quarter of a million dollars goes a long way if your business plan involves a couple of laptops and some social media marketing, but not very far at all if your business requires lab space, consumable or analytical equipment.

Governments aren’t much more help. With the exception of the Technology Strategy Board  which limps along with one hand tied behind its back getting kicked from all sides and still manages to generate a 700% ROI, the best idea the current government has come up with to stimulate economic growth is to spend the next twenty years building a railway that will allow people to get from London to Birmingham 20 minutes quicker than at present. This would have been laughed out as daft idea in 1912, never mind the 21st Century. It’s a horrible example of linear thinking, incrementally improving things in a way that results in no impact in return for a little cash.  A much cheaper option of supplying high-speed broadband to the entire population would have a clearer economic impact, and, if the government is fixated on railways, a maglev line cutting the journey from London to Edinburgh to 90 minutes would have been a better use of £32 billion.

So while we can compile lists of transformative technologies, the challenge, as always, is in persuading decision makers to ‘get it.’ While the magnitude and timing of their impact may be in question, there is one fact that we can be fairly certain of. If we continue with the present short-term attitudes to technology development, and this applies as much to governments and corporations as the investor community, then 99% of the technologies currently under development will have no economic impact at all, as they will be starved of everything they need to grow.

As my colleague on the WEF Emerging Technologies Council Javier Garcia Martinez rightly points out in ‘Science

Many of society’s most urgent problems cannot be solved by improving technologies we have today. We need bolder solutions and radically new ideas. These won’t be found in crowded ponds but in unexplored blue oceans. We need a new generation of disruptive scientists, the kind of really creative people who can imagine such new places and transport themselves — and us — to those places.

Given the golden age of science in which we find ourselves, from the engineering marvel of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to the daily breakthroughs in graphene research, we don’t have to worry about having enough science.  From California to China and back we have universities stuffed full of bright people, more than we have ever had in human history. Where we do need some blue sky thinking is how we translate that science into something that has an economic and responsible social impact, because at the moment the instant gratification or ‘get rich quick’ attitude is squandering our future.

While there is a growing sector dedicated to responsible and ethical investing (meaning integrating the consideration of environmental, social and governance issues into investment decision-making and ownership practices), it is also both responsible and ethical to invest in longer term technologies, such as those we identified, in order to address governance and deployment issues at an early stage, and enable technology to be used to the maximum social, rather than merely financial benefit.

Below, the Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies presents the technological trends expected to have major social, economic and environmental impacts worldwide in 2012. They are listed in order of greatest potential to provide solutions to global challenges:

1. Informatics for adding value to information

The quantity of information now available to individuals and organizations is unprecedented in human history, and the rate of information generation continues to grow exponentially. Yet, the sheer volume of information is in danger of creating more noise than value, and as a result limiting its effective use. Innovations in how information is organized, mined and processed hold the key to filtering out the noise and using the growing wealth of global information to address emerging challenges.

2. Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering

The natural world is a testament to the vast potential inherent in the genetic code at the core of all living organisms. Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into this potential in unprecedented ways, enabling the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes – whether converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs or protecting the body against harm.

3. Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass

Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet, the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new green revolution holds the promise of further increasing crop production yields, minimizing environmental impact, reducing energy and water dependence, and decreasing the carbon footprint.

4. Nanoscale design of materials

The increasing demand on natural resources requires unprecedented gains in efficiency. Nanostructured materials with tailored properties, designed and engineered at the molecular scale, are already showing novel and unique features that will usher in the next clean energy revolution, reduce our dependence on depleting natural resources, and increase atom-efficiency manufacturing and processing.

5. Systems biology and computational modelling/simulation of chemical and biological systems

For improved healthcare and bio-based manufacturing, it is essential to understand how biology and chemistry work together. Systems biology and computational modelling and simulation are playing increasingly important roles in designing therapeutics, materials and processes that are highly efficient in achieving their design goals, while minimally impacting on human health and the environment.

6. Utilization of carbon dioxide as a resource

Carbon is at the heart of all life on earth. Yet, managing carbon dioxide releases is one of the greatest social, political and economic challenges of our time. An emerging innovative approach to carbon dioxide management involves transforming it from a liability to a resource. Novel catalysts, based on nanostructured materials, can potentially transform carbon dioxide to high value hydrocarbons and other carbon-containing molecules, which could be used as new building blocks for the chemical industry as cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals.

7. Wireless power

Society is deeply reliant on electrically powered devices. Yet, a significant limitation in their continued development and utility is the need to be attached to the electricity grid by wire – either permanently or through frequent battery recharging. Emerging approaches to wireless power transmission will free electrical devices from having to be physically plugged in, and are poised to have as significant an impact on personal electronics as Wi-Fi had on Internet use.

8. High energy density power systems

Better batteries are essential if the next generation of clean energy technologies are to be realized. A number of emerging technologies are coming together to lay the foundation for advanced electrical energy storage and use, including the development of nanostructured electrodes, solid electrolysis and rapid-power delivery from novel supercapacitors based on carbon-based nanomaterials. These technologies will provide the energy density and power needed to supercharge the next generation of clean energy technologies.

9. Personalized medicine, nutrition and disease prevention

As the global population exceeds 7 billion people – all hoping for a long and healthy life – conventional approaches to ensuring good health are becoming less and less tenable, spurred on by growing demands, dwindling resources and increasing costs. Advances in areas such as genomics, proteomics and metabolomics are now opening up the possibility of tailoring medicine, nutrition and disease prevention to the individual. Together with emerging technologies like synthetic biology and nanotechnology, they are laying the foundation for a revolution in healthcare and well-being that will be less resource intensive and more targeted to individual needs.

10. Enhanced education technology

New approaches are needed to meet the challenge of educating a growing young population and providing the skills that are essential to the knowledge economy. This is especially the case in today’s rapidly evolving and hyperconnected globalized society. Personalized IT-based approaches to education are emerging that allow learner-centred education, critical thinking development and creativity. Rapid developments in social media, open courseware and ubiquitous access to the Internet are facilitating outside classroom and continuous education.

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