Materials – how to accelerate innovation by problem-solving at the core
The advanced development of humankind is much due to our ability to crystalize imagination. We have learned how to assemble atoms into stable structures, i.e., how to create and manipulate materials. With that skillset we form the tools and the objects that are at the foundation of our society.
Material science is an enabler of technology. Think about it, without semiconductors, microchips, LED screens, and lithium ion batteries – all being technologies that spawned out of material innovation that occurred decades ago – there would be no smartphones. Without fiber optics, there would be no internet. And really, if you look deep enough, you’ll see that the enabling aspect of material goes far beyond digitalization.
But to allow continuity to technological development and push beyond the limits of today’s solutions, it is of essence to continue daring and dreaming, to design new materials and to work them into the commercial products of tomorrow.
VCs has steered away from investments in atoms to promote investments in bits. However, in the long term, with stagnant investments into new materials we might not find new solutions to fuel Moore’s law, to enable the full transition to renewable energy or to use tissue engineering as a way to manufacture human spare parts. Over time, promises of new supermaterials that enable moonshot projects will fade. Innovation will slow down.
ENABLE THE FUTURE
Let us explore some current opportunities on a constantly changing horizon:
For long, unsustainable materials enabled product development and boosted economies: fossil-based plastics; electronic components based on rare earth metals; animal-based products. At a time of increasing environmental awareness, researchers and industry alike has started looking for sustainable alternatives. Be it nanocellulose as a replacement of synthetic polymers or microbially produced leather. At a scientific level the options are many but at the commercial plane, there is much to be desired.
Looking back, innovation in this field has been driven by “technology-push” from the scientific community. But an important shift is underway: “customer-pull” is becoming a strong driving force. This shift will enable sustainable business building around sustainable materials. And we are here to support that.
Research show that 2/3 of the overall progress in computational power comes from material innovation, but what happens when we’ve tapped out the potential of silicon? Will Moore’s law fail or will we have a new solution that’s ready to pick up from there?
We believe one way forward is new semiconductor materials. Take for example silicon carbide for next-generation power devices, or gallium nitride for solar cells and processors. Without these we might not get the fast-charging EVs that we so much desire, AI that goes beyond the ability to answer simple queries, or solar cells that effectively meets the energy needs of the digitized society. Now is the time to act.
In the discipline of tissue engineering, scientists are demonstrating ways of manufacturing spare parts for humans from polymeric scaffolds, human cells and growth factors, where just decades ago it was unthinkable. While biomaterials is not a novel idea, the way the domain has progressed from the use of leaves for the treatment of wounds to advanced implant materials capable of replacing vital tissue is much due to the hard work and joint effort of biologists and technologists.
We see the unification of biology and technology as key to the pursuit of longevity, and the concept of biomaterials as a central component of that. A true enabler of the future.
Additive manufacturing can be seen as a pathway to new materials . With 3D-pritning we gain the capability to design materials from the bottom and up. We gain control of the structure at the macro level all the way down below microscopic detail. In that way, we can build materials with unique mechanical and electrical properties, or materials that can guide cellular growth and differentiation. It is one of the missing links between concept and reality, thus a good attack point to fuel material innovation.
Disruptive innovation is far from trivial but when we succeed new ideas spur, an effect that is at the core of the prosperous innovation economy. Therefore, to us, problem-solving at the core is key to accelerating innovation and avoid stagnation.
/by Alex Basu