10 Top Emerging Technologies to Watch in 2021

- November 23rd, 2020

In its Foresight 2021 report, research and advisory firm Lux Research examines the top emerging technologies to watch next year.

After a year full of uncertainties, with COVID-19 taking center stage, eyes are turning to new opportunities in emerging technologies and innovations that are reshaping the world. 

In its Foresight 2021 report, research and advisory firm Lux Research examines the top tech innovations that will have the greatest impact over the next decade. The report includes a list of the top emerging technologies to watch next year, which could be key in a post-pandemic world.

“Technologies from our lists like digital biomarkers and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled sensors can help bring businesses back to work,” said Michael Holman, vice president of research.

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“But for all the changes that the pandemic has brought, the key megatrends shaping the future are still in force. Technologies that support these transitions, such as autonomous vehicles, alternative proteins, and green hydrogen, will maintain their momentum,” added Holman, also the report’s lead author.

The technologies were chosen based on innovation interest scores from the Lux Tech Signal, a composite measure assembled from a variety of innovation data sources, along with input from Lux’s experts.

1. Autonomous vehicles

Increased levels of vehicle automation continue to be on the horizon — with expectations that the need for drivers in both consumer and commercial vehicles will eventually be removed.

“Improvements in safety and efficiency are happening at all levels of vehicle automation, benefiting both consumer vehicles and commercial applications,” says the report.

For those interested in this technology, Lux suggests tapping into emerging opportunities in areas like sensors and connectivity for autonomous vehicles, while also planning for the impact on mobility businesses more broadly.

2. Natural language processing

Tools and techniques used to process, analyze and generate text are another emerging technology to watch in 2021. This includes areas like voice assistants, machine translation and chatbots.

According to Lux, natural language processing patents have had a 44 percent compound annual growth rate over the past five years, now reaching more than 3,000 publications annually.

“Due to advances in machine learning and specifically deep learning, natural language processing is rapidly reaching human performance in a variety of pattern recognition tasks,” said Lux. “However, the technology is still far away from human-level comprehension and understanding of text and must often be combined with other AI tools like computer vision to process multimodal data.”

3. Plastic recycling

Another trend that Lux analysts will be watching next year are innovations that can convert plastic waste into a variety of valuable products ― enabling a circular economy and avoiding pollution.

“Concerns about plastic waste from consumers and regulators have only grown, and major consumer product companies from food to apparel have made commitments to increase recycling rates and usage of recycled content,” says the report. “Innovations that can convert waste into higher-value products are in high demand to meet the challenge.”

4. AI-enabled sensors

Lux data shows companies developing or using AI-enabled sensors have raised more than $1.8 billion.

“Sensors of all kinds now can provide more impactful insights when coupled with machine learning and AI,” reads the report. “Recent advancements in machine learning capabilities enable developers and operators to extract more value out of sensors; this is an opportunity to create new products and improve internal processes by generating deeper insights off existing hardware.”

5. Bioinformatics

The largest use of bioinformatics is currently in pharmaceutical discovery, but new and far-reaching opportunities, including risk assessment, safety, personalization, diagnostics and traceability, are making bioinformatics impactful across multiple industries, including food and agriculture, according to Lux.

Looking specifically at health and pharma, which have been critical topics in 2020 due to the pandemic, Lux says bioinformatics has become a critical component in the early stages of drug discovery, particularly in target discovery.

“As the pharmaceutical and biotech industry increasingly shifts towards biological treatments, bioinformatics will play a larger role throughout the development process,” says Lux’s most recent research on the topic.

6. Green hydrogen

With the increased phase out of internal combustion engine vehicles, interest in hydrogen fuel cells has increased. For Lux they remain an unfulfilled dream, but analysts at the research firm still believe green hydrogen can help clean up otherwise hard-to-decarbonize industrial processes.

“‘Green’ hydrogen produced from renewable electricity can enable storage and transportation of clean electricity for a more robust and flexible energy transition,” analysts say in the report.

According to Lux data, there have been more than 10,000 patent publications in water electrolysis for green hydrogen over the past decade, rising at a 14 percent compound annual growth rate.

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7. Shared mobility

Another trend to watch is shared mobility — innovations in mobility outside conventional ownership, such as car-sharing, ride-hailing, autonomous taxis and other mobility-as-a-service businesses.

“The rise of shared mobility services like Uber and Lyft is threatening to disrupt a multi trillion-dollar auto industry,” says Lux about this trend. “Self-driving cars, zero-emission vehicles, connectivity, and innovative materials are defining the future of mobility.”

8. Alternative proteins

Alternatives to the resource-intensive traditional meat industry are emerging rapidly, with immediate impact from plant-based proteins. In fact, publicly listed Beyond Meat (NASDAQ:BYND) has increased its share price 83 percent year-to-date.

“Meeting the growing global demand for protein supply sustainably is an urgent concern,” says the report. “Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are showing that there is a massive opportunity to cater to sustainability-minded consumers and to the demand for protein choice in general.”

9. 3D printing

Also making the list is 3D printing, which refers to the additive fabrication of objects by depositing and patterning successive layers of material.

“Currently, innovation is not only about technology improvement but also about creating complete processes for each specific application,” says Lux on this topic. “It is likely that this focus on process development will continue in the foreseeable future.”

Analysts at the firm see two main trends in 3D printing in the next decade: sustainability and digital transformation.

10. Materials informatics

Last on Lux’s top emerging technologies to watch list are those using AI techniques to accelerate chemical and material development.

“Major players in materials informatics are still in their early-stage engagement phase, where different business models are being tested,” says Lux. “This indicates an opportunity for clients who engage well and early enough to become the dominant player.”

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Securities Disclosure: I, Priscila Barrera, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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