Emerging Technologies – Outlook 2021

February 5th, 2021 Innovation Insights
Two heads look at each other. In their brains are luminous technology symbols. They are both networked.

The development of sensational new technologies sure to arouse the interest of companies and investors will continue in 2021. Existential technologies that will still be relevant or even create new markets and value networks when the distancing rules have been forgotten and the protective masks have been discarded.

Two heads look at each other. In their brains are luminous technology symbols. They are both networked.

Sustainable Synthetic Material Technologies Research Area

Sustainable synthetic materials: reconciling consumerism and consumer awareness?

Sustainable and synthetic: Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? The oxymoron of a society that wishes to maintain and, if possible, increase its standard of living, but at the same time is aware of the problems this entails, from resource consumption to climate change? Perhaps. But perhaps Sustainable Synthetic Material Technologies are part of the solution.

Sustainable means maintaining the ideal balance of natural resources, not consuming more than can grow back. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Take bio-plastics as an example. These are either bio-based or biodegradable plastics: Bio-based plastics are plastics partly produced from biomass such as corn and sugar cane. Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, are plastics that decompose under certain conditions, leaving nothing but CO2 and water behind when they break down. Bio-based plastics can be biodegradable, but this is not always the case. Conversely, biodegradable plastics are not necessarily bio-based. They are particularly important for the packaging industry, in agriculture, horticulture, medicine, tool technology and many other sectors.

Compared to conventional plastics, which take decades to centuries to degrade, releasing pollutants in the process, the new plastics made from organic materials biodegrade in a short time. However, this also applies to some plastics that are produced conventionally but nevertheless decompose without leaving residues. This makes it worthwhile to take a look at the manufacturing processes. Plant-based raw materials are climate-neutral to begin with, and yet the ecological balance is not automatically satisfactory, as the example of bio-plastics from conventionally produced energy crops shows: The production of the plants requires heavy fertilization using nitrous oxide (N2O), a gas that is harmful to the environment. Innovations in the field of sustainable synthetic materials therefore offer net sustainability only if they take the Cradle to Cradle model, based on criteria such as resource-friendly production, repair mechanisms, reusability and pollutant-free degradation, into account.

Companies

Ence Energía y Celulosa

The Spanish company Ence Energía y Celulosa SA produces eucalyptus pulp for the environmentally friendly manufacture of high-quality papers. It also operates power plants for the generation of renewable energies that exclusively use the agroforestry biomass of the surrounding area. 

SCA

The largest owner of private forests in Europe is the Swedish group Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget, or SCA for short. The employees produce packaging, mechanical pulp and cellulose, biofuels and wood pellets. The company’s forests absorb more than ten percent of Sweden’s fossil fuel emissions each year, and its products are based on renewable raw materials.

Digital Healthcare and Medical Technologies Research Area

Digital Medicine: Fear and hope coexisting

Digitalization in medicine gets closer to people’s hearts than almost any other topic, literally penetrating body and mind. Because of this, not only is increased digitalization accepted in this arena, but it raises both hopes – for AI-supported diagnoses, mass-printed prostheses from 3D printers, etc. – and fears: Am I going to find myself sitting across from a robot instead of a doctor in the near future? In any case, digital medicine is advancing, and no one can escape it. Many don’t even want to and are welcoming it with open arms by using smartwatches and fitness apps.

Communication and personal contact play an important role, particularly in medicine… at least that is what people thought until now. For many reasons, especially distance and cost, this is now often no longer possible, necessary or desirable… #hashtag Covid-19. Remote (Greek “tele”) examinations and data collection are replacing visits to the doctor’s office, and fitness bracelets have rendered blood pressure measurements obsolete. Digitalization, being the ideal means of overcoming distance, has given birth to telemedicine. Telemedicine sounds about as sexy as a pre-prime-time series on public television. Yet, it is one of the most promising cutting edges for research in terms of innovation, precisely because advances can so directly facilitate the daily lives of virtually everyone. Who enjoys sitting for hours in a waiting room or behind the wheel toward a distant specialist’s practice? Telemedicine now makes it possible to discuss diagnosis and therapy on your home screen as well, and the doctor has all your medical data and values available at the click of a mouse, in real-time if required.

Telemedicine falls within the overall topic of e-health. The common thread is the distance-independent interaction between the stakeholders in the health care system (service providers, payers, manufacturers of medical technology, and patients); this also includes applications of individualized medical technology. Almost every medical specialty benefits from innovations in telemedicine: In tele-surgery or computer-assisted surgery, it is not the doctor who wields the scalpel, but a robot controlled by the doctor. In tele-dermatology, diseased skin areas, for example in cases of neurodermatitis or skin cancer, can be examined using a smartphone application. Telemonitoring assists cardiologists by transmitting data online from a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator to a physician or treatment center. Comparable advantages are offered by tele-oncology, tele-radiology and even tele-psychiatry, where therapy sessions can be conducted online via video conferencing.

As pleasant, convenient and, depending on your point of view, advantageous as telemedicine may be, the transmission of personal, intimate data will raise the blood pressure of anyone who is halfway sensitive to it. What is needed here is more than just adequate data protection laws and solutions that make the equally controversial and tiresome topic feasible even for those with an aversion to the entire issue of data protection. One of the most important innovations, which would also be free of charge, would be the awareness that one should not entrust one’s personal data to just any health app.

Companies

Advanced Medical Solutions

Founded in 1991 in the UK, the company develops, manufactures and markets innovative high-performance wound care products, surgical dressings, medical materials, adhesives and sutures for tissue closure and sealing.

Stratec

Stratec is a globally active company based in Birkenfeld, Baden-Württemberg which develops and manufactures integrated, fully automated analysis systems in the field of in-vitro diagnostics, predominantly together with clients. In addition to the systems themselves, Stratec also develops software for linking the analysis systems to laboratory software.

Renewable Energy Technologies Research Area

The new renewables

Almost everyone can now recite the sources of renewable energy that are known and used today: Wind energy, solar energy (photovoltaics and solar radiation energy), hydroelectric power, geothermal energy (geothermal heat) and energy produced from biomass in the form of biogas, landfill gas, and sewage gas. Their increasing use in the context of the number one climate goal, climate neutrality in Europe by 2050, is on the agenda of all EU countries, and some governments are beginning to take them seriously. Renewables are also called alternative energies because they are an alternative to nuclear energy and to the fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and oil, that have been predominant up to now.

The research and development of renewable energy holds considerable innovation potential – as significant as the worldwide increase in energy demand for electricity, heat and fuels, which will rise by a quarter by 2040 according to the forecast of the International Energy Agency IEA. The hope of solving the energy problem rests on new, emerging technologies, including ocean energy, concentrated solar power, and enhanced geothermal energy.

Ocean Energy

Anyone on the Atlantic coast can experience the tremendous amount of energy in the ocean or witness it in films such as “The Poseidon Adventure.” Equally tremendous is the energy demand of the land-dwelling homo sapiens. You put the two together, and outcomes the idea of using ocean energy. Specifically, this means: Wave energy, marine current power, tidal range (tidal power plants), temperature gradient (energy generation due to the difference in water temperature at the surface and at depth) and salinity gradient (utilizes the difference in salinity between freshwater and seawater, i.e. osmosis). The means differ, but what they have in common is the modest result thus far. Except for a few tidal power plants – the Sihwa-ho power plant in South Korea and Rance in France are among the largest in terms of capacity – ocean energy has remained largely untapped for energy production. The other potential forms (waves, currents, temperature and salinity) are still in the research and development phase. Before the use of ocean energy becomes economically viable, sea levels will rise by several millimeters – although economic considerations will have to take a back seat then anyway.

Solar energy concentration

In concentrated solar power (CSP) plants, not to be confused with conventional photovoltaic plants, thermal solar energy is captured and concentrated thanks to mirrors or lenses. Steam turbines or thermal engines generate electricity from the bundled energy. They achieve a shorter energy amortization time and, depending on the design, higher efficiencies than photovoltaic systems, but have higher operating and maintenance costs and require a certain minimum size.

Enhanced geothermal energy

The interior of the earth is extremely hot; the earth’s core reaches temperatures of up to 7,700 degrees Celsius, and some parts of the earth’s surface are extremely cold. Using geothermal energy to meet people’s heating needs is an obvious choice. Bathing in hot springs is certainly one of the most pleasant ways to enjoy geothermal energy, but not the only one. It can also be used for heating and to generate electricity. If the hot water doesn’t come up on its own like it does in the springs, it can be coaxed out by drilling boreholes into the depths through which cold water is piped down. The water heats up naturally and is then pumped back up again. Near-surface geothermal energy, from depths of up to 400 meters, is already being used to heat individual buildings.

But meanwhile, things are getting even deeper and hotter: Deep geothermic, or the enhanced geothermal system (EGS), begins at depths of 400 meters and currently ends at 6,400 meters – reached in Espoo, Finland in 2018 with the deepest well ever drilled for commercial heat production. Systems such as this supply entire city districts with heat – or with cooling by exploiting the coolness of the upper soil layers. If the temperatures are high enough, a geothermal power plant can also be used to generate electricity. Geothermal energy is independent of weather conditions and can supply environmentally friendly electricity almost continuously throughout the year. The downside of deep geothermic: It occasionally triggers mild earthquakes.

Companies

CropEnergies AG

CropEnergies AG, founded in Mannheim in 2006, is, according the company itself, the leading European producer of bioethanol produced from biomass. The company also produces protein-rich food and animal feed from the residues left over from production.

“Ethanol is currently trending within the renewable energy megatrend,” the Handelsblatt quoted an expert stating as early as 2006. Meanwhile, the focus is on cellulose ethanol, the second generation of biofuel because production from feed stuffs such as sugar beets, potatoes or corn leads to competition for arable land. Cellulose ethanol or lignocellulose ethanol is produced from plant residues such as straw, wood residues and landscaping materials, or from low-maintenance energy crops that also grow on low-quality soils. Ethanol is primarily used as a fuel. Biofuels result in climate gas savings of 50 to 70 percent compared to fossil fuels, depending on agricultural practices and crops.

VERBIO Vereinigte Bioenergie AG

Verbio, based in Zörbig, Saxony-Anhalt, also produces and sells biofuels: biodiesel, bioethanol, and biogas and, since 2020, disinfectants.

Boralex

Boralex is a Canadian-based power producer that develops, builds and operates renewable energy power plants (wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biomass heating).

Gene Sequencing and Genotyping Technologies Research Area

Gene sequencing and gene typing: the end of (almost) all medical suffering?

Does anyone still remember Craig Venter? Yes, that’s the guy with the human genome project. At least the one who made it public. In 2003, he, his peers, his competitors, and arguably the entire bioscience community celebrated the “decoding” of the human genome, or more specifically, the sequencing and thus the order of bases in DNA. However, the significance and specific function of the genes are still largely unknown. Over the years, new gene sequencing methods have been developed, including next-generation sequencing, a high-speed method for decoding the genetic material known as DNA. Less than twenty years ago, the complete sequencing of the first human genome cost three billion euros and took 13 years. Today, genomes are decoded in a day and at a fraction of the cost.

Teams from around the world are working to give meaning, purpose and life to this pioneering feat because the better one knows the genes, the more they reveal, for example in

  • the diagnosis of hereditary diseases: Certain DNA sequences are indicative of hereditary diseases, which does not mean that a patient will necessarily contract them. Nevertheless, therapy can be started as a preventive course of action, and if necessary, even prenatally.
  • Antibiotic resistance: To prevent the dreaded resistance to medications, the genetic material of bacteria that are increasingly evading the effects of antibiotics can be sequenced. Once this is known, targeted active substances can be developed to pre-empt the self-defense mechanisms of the bacteria. Intolerance to vaccines can also be detected by gene sequencing.
  • Phylogenetic affinity: Might I be descended from Marco Polo or Elizabeth I of England? If you have always wanted to know, you can save yourself the trouble of having your genome sequenced because genetic ancestors can only be traced back to the eighth generation. But at least you can learn which regions of the world your ancestors come from.

Gene sequencing is also the basis of personalized healthcare and, in many cases, enables therapies to be individualized to a degree that was scarcely conceivable in the past (see Technology Outlook 2020). It is already being used successfully in the field of tumor medicine. In recent years, it has been possible to identify ‘driver mutations, i.e. genetic alterations that are specific to tumors, for many of the approximately 200 types of cancer known to date.

There is already enthusiastic speculation about whether cancer of any type and severity will soon be curable. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is cautiously hopeful about the undoubted progress in personalized cancer therapy:

“People should be aware of the following: Even after tumor genome sequencing, not every patient can receive effective therapy. The vast majority of therapeutic proposals resulting from this type of analysis are experimental. No therapy is completely free of side effects.”

Ultimately, this is true for each of the topics presented: Where there is light, there is shadow. But a shady spot can sometimes be quite conducive to thinking, evaluating and deciding in peace.

Companies

Alexion Pharmaceuticals

Alexion Pharmaceuticals is a biopharmaceutical company specializing in medications for the treatment of rare diseases. On December 12, 2020, it was announced that AstraZeneca, one of the largest drug companies in the world, will acquire Alexion.

CureVac

The Tübingen-based company develops medications based on the messenger molecule mRNA, messenger ribonucleic acid. The following announcement was made on January 11, 2021: “CureVac’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate CVnCoV shows efficient protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection in non-human primates.”

Amgen

With approximately 20,000 employees, Amgen is one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. The European headquarters are located in Rotkreuz in the Swiss canton of Zug. The company manufactures and distributes biopharmaceutical products made using engineered DNA molecules. The medications are used in the treatment of cancer as well as kidney, bone and cardiovascular diseases.

Overview Researchfronts: Emerging Technologies – Outlook 2021

ClusterResearch FrontierEN - Description
1.Sustainable Synthetic Material TechnologiesMaterials, such as man-made fibers, made from renewable and naturally degradable raw materials are increasingly being explored to build sustainable production chains.
2.Methods for sustainable EconomyIn general, concepts and models are elaborated at a macroeconomic level, which further develops the transformation of the economy.
3.Digital Healthcare & Medical TechnologiesDigitization continues to advance in healthcare in areas of patient communication (e.g. telemedicine). Clinical instruments or consumables are linked with data interfaces to enable personalized medicine and treatment.
4.Next-generation eLearning TechnologiesSystematic approaches for cross-organizational learning are combined with the latest digital eLearning applications. Big Data and A.I. programs revolutionize the learning process of people and organizations.
5.Clean Mobility TechnologiesA networked infrastructure (e.g. autonomous driving and autonomously charging cars/buses) enables new as well as climate-neutral mobility approaches. 
6.Renewable Energy TechnologiesBasic research is being conducted into alternative energy production (solar, hot water and wind energy) in order to replace fossil fuels. Furthermore, new and alternative forms of energy are being researched, such as bioethanol or geothermal energy. 
7.Holistic Digital Manufacturing ApproachesFully digital (and also autonomous) production processes are being researched in depth and are being used in various industrial applications.
8.Blockchain Data Security SolutionsBlockchain technology is being used to develop security-related and highly specific applications, for example, to track impeccable supply chains. 
9.Wastewater Treatment TechnologiesIn order to still avert the consequences of the pollution of the world's oceans and groundwater, research is developing new processes for filtering and purifying dirty water.
10.Carbon Emission Reduction TechnologiesA wide variety of new technological approaches, such as extraction Co2 out of the atmosphere or materials that bind a lot of Co2 in the long term, will be used to develop applications for decarbonizing soils and air.
11.Sociopsychological Data MiningMore intelligent A.I. algorithms capture psychological profiles based on users' meta-data, which can be used specifically for the advertising industry. For example, science is researching digital psychological pattern recognition.
12.New Surgical TechnologiesNew robot-assisted surgical procedures are making their way into a digital and networked hospital infrastructure.
13.Smart City TechnologiesHolistic digital concepts such as the mobility transformation for cities are continuously being developed.
14.Science Policies & RegulationsScience addresses ethical and moral issues in times of digital transformation, e.g. digital surveillance or autonomous weapons systems.
15.Pollution TechnologiesModern environmental techniques record air pollutants, material cycles and ecosystems in order to investigate the effects of climate change and to derive possible consequences for the future.
16.Disruptive Finance TechnologiesLatest fin-tech startups are driving change in traditional banking and at the institutional level.
17.Sustainable Agriculture SolutionsScience is researching climate-compatible solutions for agribusiness in the context of biodiversity and sustainable food production.
18.Nano Image processing TechnologiesFurther research efforts are being intensified in the field of nanoscale imaging techniques, e.g. to detect the finest bone structures in humans or microcracks in constructions.
19.Green Manufacturing SolutionsThis research area is concerned with "green production". Science develops new approaches and solutions for establishing environmentally friendly operations within a national economy.
20.Detection TechnologiesAdvances in digital image recognition supported by A.I. are enabling new applications in a wide range of industries. For example, applications are being developed for autonomous driving or virus detection in the laboratories.
21.Digital Work & Communication TechnologiesUsing Open Data, Big Data and company data, the internal and external communication of companies is examined and new application areas are developed.
22.Battery Recycling TechnologiesThe scientific community is researching new storage solutions for electricity as well as sustainable concepts for battery recycling so that lithium-ion batteries can be reused.
23.Patent Analysis SystemsPatent analytics and the use of Big Data solutions are becoming increasingly important for innovation research.
24.Automated Risk AssesmentsIn the field of legal tech, there is further research on holistic risk models based on automated A.I. risk models.
25.New Age Food Consumer ProductsThe food industry in particular is developing new solutions along the value chain for sustainable consumer products. This ranges from production to packaging and delivery. 
26.Social Behavior Forcast ModellingThis relatively new research area focuses on scientific prediction models based on social and digital interactions on the Internet. On this basis, implications can be derived for product innovations and consumer trends can be identified.
27.Gene Sequencing & Genotyping TechnologiesDisease patterns and patterns within genetics are continuously being investigated using modern process techniques in gene sequencing. Cell and molecular biology is researching new drugs or therapies for hereditary diseases or cancer. 
28.Energy Transformation ApproachesTechnological innovation in the field of energy conversion and processing is intensifying in order to bring about the energy turnaround. Concepts for phasing out nuclear and coal-fired power are being developed.
29.EcoInnovation & Green TechnologiesEco-innovation refers to a field that deals with technologies, processes or production innovations that have a positive impact on the environment.
30.Unemployment SolutionsIn the course of digitization and the change in the working environment, research is being conducted into solutions and concepts for advanced training and continuing education.
31.New Methods for digital ResearchDigital databases and digital media data enable further developments in quantitative and qualitative research. Science can access small-scale and difficult data to answer increasingly complex questions.
32.Reproductive Fertilization TechnologiesIn connection with advances in genetics better diagnosis for hereditary diseases are becoming possible. At the same time, artificial insemination procedures, such as a embryo transfer, are being further developed.
33.Technologies for Cultural HeritageA small part of innovation research deals with the question of place-based technology solutions depending on cultural backgrounds and the implication process of innovation.