It’s been an undeniably turbulent year. More than nine months after the coronavirus first erupted in the U.S., we are still in the throes of an ongoing crisis. We continue to witness major disruptions to consumer behavior, business practices, and our everyday lives. Now more than ever, we need to embrace the power of science and engineering so that we don’t spend another year indoors — and so that we can live in a world that’s more equitable, safe, and sustainable.
It has never been clearer that it’s no longer viable to invest in incremental innovation. We need to support scientific breakthroughs that will hasten our path to a future we want to inhabit. As we look ahead to the upcoming decade, we believe the next generation of compute technologies will be foundational to solving some of humanity’s most pervasive and vital problems. Science alone will not move us forward; it needs technology as a primary engine of change.
The next several years will be a watershed for science and technology. We will have to decide whether we continue to allow external forces to exert control over us, or whether we leverage science and reason to assure our continued progress as a society. As we enter the post-COVID world, we must think about what threats we need to be mobilizing against to protect the globe. Incremental thinking won’t get us there, nor will the next great social media network or freelancing app, as convenient and entertaining as they are. It is only through “big bets” and visionary entrepreneurs and scientists that we will create durable value and real progress.
Navigating our increasingly complex world by developing the tools to do so is at the heart of technology’s promise for the future. Correctly applied, personalized medicine, quantum computing, advances in security, and greater automation have a role to play in driving the change we need in the decade ahead. Here are some examples of the ways we see the world evolving through technological progress:
The last 50 years of technological advancement have been underpinned by Moore’s Law, a consistent doubling in the number of transistors on a chip every two years. As this trajectory is slowing down and ultimately coming to an end, a new generation of high-powered computers are enabling a wide range of advancements across several technical fields. Without the next-generation of compute technologies, the promise of our most important breakthroughs cannot be fully realized.
“Our civilization is built on computers,” says Playground Global general partner Peter Barrett. “The underlying technologies we have used in the past can no longer keep pace with our exponentially growing appetite. Fundamentally new kinds of computing technology are emerging that will have an impact across the full spectrum of human endeavors from science to medicine, engineering to materials and beyond.”
One of the key drivers of that shift could be the further development of devices using silicon photonics. “Silicon photonics already are at the core of a number of companies in our portfolio, mostly around next-gen compute,” says Playground Global general partner Matt Hershenson. “We have invested in a silicon photonics-based quantum computing company. We have also invested in a company building co-packaged electro-optical transceivers, revolutionizing interconnect for high-performance computing. In addition, we’ve seen a wide variety of companies building sensors based on silicon photonics for autonomy and applications as diverse as chemical sensing.”
As the world’s appetite for data continues to grow, the advantages presented by silicon photonics will be even more compelling. “The performance and power profile of silicon photonics give it distinct advantages in a number of applications,” says Hershenson. “And as silicon photonics processes at leading fabs mature, I expect we will see more and more applications emerge.”
It’s also imperative from a sustainability perspective. More than 10 percent of the world’s energy is being used today by computers and data centers. As our demand for data processing continues to rise, we must find a sustainable way to grow.
Greater compute power will enable many things, but few are more immediately enticing than the shift toward greater precision, particularly in the world of biology. We see future technological advances becoming increasingly tailored to individual subjects as we continue to exert agency over the world we live in. Companies and services will work to understand the needs of an individual in a given context and address those needs dynamically. We expect to see this trend across a number of rapidly changing industries including drug discovery, industrial farming, and retail supply chains and logistics. One of the most profound examples will be in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It is astonishing that the first two COVID-19 vaccines headed for FDA emergency use authorization will be based on mRNA technology,” says Playground Global general partner Jory Bell. “The mRNA modality is so new to the scene that these vaccines will also be the first ever mRNA therapies of any type to gain any kind of regulatory approval. Part of that is because mRNA therapies are such a flexible, modular approach that once you develop the vaccine substrate, loading it with what is essentially a program, or a payload, is extremely fast, which immediately put these vaccines at the pole position in the global race to stop the pandemic.”
Bell predicts this will be one of the first major steps in the widespread availability of personalized medicine: “In the future, using the same fundamental mRNA modality, we’ll see other truly programmable smart therapeutics, where the mRNA will use genetic circuits to sense and react in the body and only apply itself to disease cells, viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens — and they will be able to do so in an increasingly sophisticated manner. And again, we’ll be able to do so in ways that can be developed on a very fast timeline, because it’s just going to be like loading new software onto the same therapeutic backbone.”
There is also accelerating opportunity around genome sequencing and its applications. “We’re seeing a revolution in healthcare that’s just starting to take off,” says Bell. “The falling cost of genome sequencing will have a major impact in the way we think about medicine. Sequencing a single human genome went from costing an estimated $2.7 billion for the Human Genome Project‘s first efforts two decades ago to less than $1,000 today.”
“We believe the cost per human genome will soon fall to $100, and maybe even $10 in the coming years,” says Bell. “Eventually, when you go for an annual checkup, you’ll have your full human genome sequenced — which will be used to quickly and accurately diagnose disease and to develop ever more personalized treatments.”
In addition to precision medicine, we expect agriculture to feed more people sustainably through advances in AI and big data. The combined impacts of scarcity in natural resources, climate change, and availability of labor will create the need for more efficient farming methods. Rather than applying water, fertilizers, and pesticides across large fields of crops, farmers will begin to target specific plants, using only the minimum amount of required resources. The advances of sensors, machines, and information systems will help usher in this radical change to how we produce food at scale.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about how we get more food to sustainably grow with less impact on the environment,” says Playground General partner Bruce Leak. “It’s exciting to imagine farming without herbicides, what that looks like and how we get there. We don’t need to spray chemicals to get rid of weeds in a world of automation and robotics.”
“We can have a relationship with every plant and optimize on a precision agricultural point of view,” says Leak. “The only way we’re going to get more food from the same land is through a plant-by-plant approach.”
Next-gen compute enables greater precision for businesses too. Advances in computer processing, sensors, real-time data gathering, and analytics are already tailoring applications and services to individual needs. This trend will only become more pervasive over the next decade as compute transcends its current barriers.
This year has rapidly accelerated our transition to remote, distributed work. The sudden shift has created problems for many of the information security officers that oversee company networks. Navigating the fast-changing contours of cybersecurity is always a challenge, but this year in particular was a test for every major organization.
“Last year put a spotlight on crisis management readiness and effectiveness for companies overall, and there has been a mandate to secure devices and network access for remote employees and third parties,” says Playground Global general partner Laurie Yoler. “The perimeter of the physical office can no longer be relied upon to limit vulnerabilities, so advanced identity management, two-factor authentication, and anomaly detection are imperative. The pandemic has also forced companies to accelerate their digital transformation efforts, which has expedited the deployment of new AI and robotic systems to automate tasks that used to be done in the office.”
There’s opportunity for investment to increase focus on employee safety in factories, warehouses, and other common workplaces. We see robotics and automation as the key to unlocking greater protection for workers. “There are a lot of unpleasant and downright dangerous jobs today that don’t make use of humans’ incredible capacity for creativity, problem solving and empathy,” says Leak. “The rise of automation and robotics should free us to do more interesting things with our humanity, just as innovations like the tractor, washing machine, and direct-dial telephones liberated earlier workers from drudgery.”
A Return to Logic and Science
From a global pandemic, to wildfires and climate change, to the increasing wealth gap, the seemingly intractable problems we faced in 2020 will no doubt leave a lasting impact on the world. Despite the hardships endured by so many, and disproportionately felt by our neediest, we are deeply encouraged by the return to science, as people follow vaccine progress closely, look to experts for answers, and return to a fact-based worldview. We salute the entrepreneurs, scientists and innovators who are in the trenches, every day, rising up to meet the challenges of the decade ahead.
Please join us Thursday, December 10th at 10am-11am PT when Axios future correspondent Bryan Walsh will host Playground Global’s general partners in a conversation on their predictions for the decade ahead. To register in advance for this webinar, click here.
If you’re working on something exciting, please get in touch!