At Catalyze we operate in an industry that is propelled by research and innovation. Technologies are rapidly evolving, leading to challenging markets and rising consumer expectations. Therefore, lots of companies in Life Science, but also Agriculture, Food, Bioeconomy, and IT industries are trying to capture the potential of novel emerging trends. We are amazed every time a new project comes in, as they are most often at the forefront of highly innovative novel solutions to global issues. Within this article, we would like to emphasize three emerging and breakthrough technologies that we expect to make impact in the coming years.
1. Bioplastics to solve the pollution problem
As the world’s population grows, so does the amount of garbage that people produce. The current modern lifestyle is intertwined with disposable plastic products. In 2014 alone, industry generated 311 million metric tons, an amount expected to triple by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum. Unfortunately, plastics are irreplaceable in modern society, as they have important physicochemical properties and they protect against contamination. The accumulation of plastic products results in an increasing amount of plastic pollution all around the world. To reduce its environmental impact, plastic is recycled. However, this alone is not sufficient to tackle the plastic problem, as only 8.4% of plastics are recycled.
An upcoming solution to decrease plastic packaging pollution is to replace conventional plastic with sustainably biodegradable materials, named bioplastics. This leads to a ‘circular’ plastic economy, where the plastics derive from and are converted back to biomass. These bioplastics are produced from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch and recycled food waste. Using these materials reduces CO2 emissions, as bioplastics are climate-neutral – each plant absorbs as much CO2 in its lifetime as it emits when it is burned or decomposes or converted into bioplastics, such as bioplastics that are developed to be home-compostable.
The use of these bioplastics seems like the best solution to combat the plastic pollution problem. However, certain obstacles must be overcome before all plastics can be replaced by bioplastics. The first is cost, bioplastics are more expensive to produce and therefore also more expensive for customers, which limits their uptake and use. Another is minimizing the amount of land and water used to produce them; there is still a high amount of water needed to produce most bioplastics. And of course, this novel plastic solution requires regulatory changes and social and behaviour changes in how the general population uses and disposes of plastics.
Despite these hurdles, the production of bioplastics is a great example of how a novel solution can make great impact and strive for circularity in a major industry. Therefore, we expect the increased use and innovation of bioplastics in years to come. We are proud that several of our clients are leading the way in this essential transition away from conventional plastic, such as Plantics, who have developed a new type of thermoset bio-resins and thermoset bio-based materials.
2. Smart contact lenses to monitor or treat humans
Wearable devices monitoring a person’s health status are very common in our modern society. Currently, most are used to track and document a person’s fitness activities, but it is expected that this sensing and measuring technology will also be used in the future for diagnosis, therapy and disease prevention. It can objectively measure a person’s health and transfer this data to (health)care providers that can respond to changes in the data. One of these devices already developed is an electronic digital tattoo that can measure electrophysiological parameters, such as heart rate, but is currently only used at the Intensive Care Unit.
In the optical field, smart contact lenses are a highly innovative emerging technology to watch over the coming year. These contact lenses can act as medical devices or health trackers. As a medical device, the lenses will be equipped with thousands of biosensors that can pick up early indicators of, for example, but not limited to, cancer. There are already devices that can monitor the pressure in a person’s eye, to help in the treatment of glaucoma. In addition, there is a lens in development that can track physiological glucose levels from tears. Researchers were able to attach transparent, flexible electronics to the lens that will not block the vision while it can wirelessly ensure the glucose sensors are running.
Next to a monitoring function, there are also smart lenses in development that can treat patients. Multiple companies are developing contact lenses for continuous drug delivery to the eye for conditions such as glaucoma or infections on the eye. Another medical direction for smart lenses is the ability to use the lenses as a ‘bandage’ for eye surface injuries, which can be a valuable treatment for heat and chemical injuries of the eyes.
Smart contact lenses may sound like science-fiction, but a lot of research and development is going on in this field as illustrated. Therefore, we expect the smart lenses to revolutionize the ophthalmology research field and we cannot wait to see all the companies launching their lenses that can improve the lives of a lot of people worldwide. Learn more about the Eureka Eurostars programme for excellent funding opportunities in this area.
3. Social robots as novel communication channels in our daily lives
In recent years we have observed the rise of robots being used in health care. Medical robots are a great tool used in surgeries, which can lead to safer and less-invasive surgery and reduced infection rate compared to manual surgery. Next to surgery robots there are robotic protheses available that can track their own position in three-dimensional space and bionic skins that can interface with the nervous system. In addition, there are even robotic exoskeletons that can make paralyzed people walk again. Beyond these medical robotic solutions, there is currently another type of robot that will make an impact in the modern life: social robots.
Social robots, just like other robots, use artificial intelligence (AI) to decide how to react to information from people or their surroundings, received through sensors, such as cameras. The difference with other robots is that a social robot can interact and communicate with humans by following social behaviours. Advances in AI have enabled robot designers to translate these social behaviours into algorithms, making the social robots capable of recognizing voices, facial expressions and emotions. They can interpret the way a person speaks and can respond to the most complex verbal and nonverbal cues that a person gives. The social robots can adapt to a person’s needs by learning from the feedback, rewards or criticisms from the human.
In many ways COVID-19 is already acting as a catalyst for changes that were already on the roll. One of these changes is the emergence of these social robots in care and assisted living homes, which are becoming increasingly important, due to their ability to interact with elderly and other persons that are most vulnerable to infections and viral diseases such as COVID-19. In this way, the robots can also function as companions for such persons when it is not safe for nursing staff to go into their homes, or when nurses are understaffed. In addition, a chatbot nurse can perform triage by asking a person about their symptoms and computing this into a care system.
This is just the start of the rise of social robots. The applicability of social robots is endless in our modern society and we definitely expect to hear more about it in 2021. There are currently excellent funding opportunities for those working in AI research & development. Learn about the Eureka Clusters AI Call 2021 grant on our Eureka Network page.
These three highlighted technologies are just a small grasp of all the exciting technologies we are facing every day. We also see a lot of movement in other fields such as cancer therapeutics, cardiovascular medical devices and smart agriculture systems. At Catalyze we have raised over €650 million for all kinds of different innovative projects and technologies. Over more than 10 years, we have learned that even at an early-stage, innovative or other emerging technologies can be supported through non-dilutive funding. Therefore, we strive every day to support our clients to our best capabilities to help their technology become as emerging as the ones described here.