Emerging technologies play an important role in addressing our major mega-challenges such as energy, water, food and health for the world’s growing population. Integrating these emerging technologies within existing industries presents not only a major challenge but an opportunity. The energy industry, for example, stands to benefit from emerging technologies. Bio-engineering microorganisms is allowing for the enzymatic degradation of cellulose, making possible the transformation of agricultural waste — instead of food — into biofuels. Nanomaterials embedded in polymers are being used in a new generation of flexible, lighter and more efficient solar cells free of costly silicon. These are just a few examples of how a large and fairly traditional industry is already benefiting from disruptive innovations, although some major challenges such as cost, scalability, and reliability remain greatly unsolved.
The development of great technologies is not enough.
Commercialization is key to creating new jobs. Once a discovery has been made, the first challenge is harnessing the entrepreneurial drive of the discoverer. In too many cases, groundbreaking discoveries with great commercial potential end in a scientific publication or a patent without a product prototype. This happens because entrepreneurship is not top of mind for most world-class scientists.
The second challenge, once the technology has been validated and a business plan has been created, is to transition an invention from the lab to the marketplace. The lack of private funding to grow small companies into successful and sustainable ones is a major challenge. This is especially true in the fields of energy and health where massive and sustained funding is needed.
Before we can adequately address either of these challenges, however, the appropriate talent needs to be there. Education systems will need to be revised to equip future generations to be able to refine and develop the technologies and make themselves employable in the employment opportunities created.
There are no shortcuts on the path from emerging technologies to new industries. In most cases, the best recipe is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship to accelerate the time to failure and favor a Darwinian selection of the “fittest” ideas.
Today, the United States is the best ecosystem to start successful companies that commercialize new technologies. However, the world’s emerging economies are becoming well-aware of technology’s job-creating potential, and, as a result, they are investing heavily in education, world-class research and supporting their new high-tech companies. With large populations of highly-motivated young people, it is likely that many of these new industries will begin to flourish in emerging economies that invest in R&D, higher education and entrepreneurship.