By Hsien-Hui Tong, Executive Director, Investments, SGInnovate
It’s the start of another new year, which usually means new takes on the trends that will shape 2022. With Deep Tech’s problem-solving orientation, I believe we’ll see more investor interest directed towards solving many of the world’s most pressing challenges this year. Here are my thoughts on some of those areas.
1. Acceptance of climate change
There have been more discussions on how to get to net zero than an acceptance that what we have already done (and continue to do) may have led to irreversible changes to the climate. Getting to net zero is important, but dealing with disasters such as flash floods, forest fires and rising sea levels are problems that need to be addressed right away. Sensors, advanced mapping technology, drones, satellites and predictive modelling of weather effects on urban areas not only provide advance warning but are also able to help in evacuation and rescue planning. At the same time, advances in material technology are already leading to a new generation of building materials that is more resistant to floods, earthquakes, and tornadoes/hurricanes.
2. Alternative energy sources
In the immediate term, fossil fuels are here to stay due to the lack of viable alternatives. However, technologies that capture, use or store carbon can help decarbonise the refining process. Sustainable sources like wind and solar suffer from intermittency and will still require a fossil fuel generator to back it up. Hydroelectric and geothermal generators are specific to the geological profile of the land. Hydrogen shows great promise as a like-for-like replacement for fossil fuels (as an energy source) but producing it is still dependent on fossil fuels.
In the short term, the most promising and mature, yet most controversial energy source is nuclear. While it produces energy with a low carbon footprint, there are issues of safety, high capital expenditure and negative public opinion that have resulted in many countries forgoing the opportunity in exploring it as a clean alternative. However, with small modular reactors that produce a large amount of low-carbon electricity at a third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors, 2022 could see a renewed interest in this energy source.
3. Faster and less power-hungry chips
Cryptocurrency mining is energy intensive but what is less well known is that the carbon footprint of running AI models is equally big and growing larger by the day. Similarly, the growing interest in metaverse will also require more computing and storage capacities. Developing faster and less power-hungry chips that have been optimised for AI and other functions will become more of an imperative if the hardware is not to become the bottleneck to adoption. It's more than just about processing power, but also about data storage, transmission and more, hence, I am equally bullish on areas like photonics and power chips as they boost machine-learning performance and lower latency.
4. Cultivate the Sea
As we look to lab-based solutions for our nutritional needs, we often forget that nature may already have a solution that is quick and easy to scale. Algae and seaweed contain nutrients and protein that are as rich as those from beans and soy. The benefits go beyond just food. They act as natural carbon sinks, and some companies are already exploring the alternative of setting up racks in the ocean to cultivate algae, specifically to absorb more carbon dioxide. At the same time, it can also be processed into a cheap and plentiful source of biofuel. While technical challenges remain, learning to make use of what nature has already provided may be the best solution to our problems today.