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Digital Innovation Surprised Many Last Year, But Can It Be Sustained?

This is the latest installment of my ongoing series of discussions with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and corporate leaders on what to expect as the world recovers in the post-Covid era in terms of technology and innovation.

The resilience of the economy — supported by technology and innovative thinking — over the past year and a half astounded many economists, investors and journalists. Yes, there are issues to be resolved, such as supply chain issues with crucial items such as microchips, but things could have been worse. Now, it’s time for innovators and entrepreneurs to leverage these amazing lessons of resilience and apply them to the emerging economy ahead, blending the power of technology with the spirit of human passion.

A key lesson coming out of the past year is the business world is much more resilient than thought. “I was surprised by how little the pandemic disrupted technical innovation,” says Ritu Favre, executive vice president at NI (formerly National Instruments). “The engineering community still managed to make giant leaps forward over the past 12 months. Since this time, NASA has landed a rover on Mars, IBM announced the first 2nm chip, and 6G research has begun in earnest. All of this innovation illustrates that we are capable of disruptive innovation despite various macroeconomic, geopolitical, and virtual challenges.”

Industry leaders are concerned about slipping back into their old ways, and to seize on the lessons learned. “We were encouraged by several developments in the deployment and use of enterprise technology over the last 12 to 18 months,” says Ubaid Dhiyan, director at Union Square Advisors. Software vendors offering products that focus on collaboration, security, identity and infrastructure came to the fore. “The economy reaped the dividends of a decade of innovation in the tech stack that has enabled secure remote collaboration, interaction and commerce. The pandemic ultimately forced acceleration of digital transformation trends that will pay dividends for the next decade.”

It’s time to look forward not just over the next one to two years, but as far ahead as the next five to 15 years, Dhiyan urges. “The technologies that we see as the greatest opportunities are the use of AI, innovating the healthcare industry, cryptocurrencies and NFTs, the deployment of 5G and additional technologies such as greentech, home automation and automotive vehicles.”

This doesn’t just mean innovative products, either. The cloud-driven disruption of large, established industries “started in media, retail and content consumption, but it is now expanding into experiences as well,” he says. “Think of Peloton and a slew of other fitness related apps paired with hardware that emphasize user experience, like Mirror and Tonal.”

In particular, Dhiyan sees the use of AI for consumer applications as an area of opportunity for innovators and entrepreneurs. “While larger tech platforms have a protective moat — consumer data — the increasing focus on privacy, anti-tech sentiment in Washington and new innovation within AI and ML can potentially level the playing field and allow entrepreneurs to overcome the massive advantage that the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google operate behind.”

As a result of the pandemic, Dhiyan continues, “we have seen many businesses prioritize AI and cloud technology in their business strategy moving forward. AI’s composable infrastructure, and the ability to consume it in a precise, fine-grained manner has significantly lowered barriers to entry for product creators and innovators.”

Favre predicts there the move to digital will only keep accelerating. “The work-from-home environment accelerated the adoption of digital collaboration tools like Zoom, Meet, and Teams, but it also pushed traditionally analog engineer workflows to software-centric approaches,” she says. “We also see increased adoption of virtualization, cloud, and AI, throughout the product workflow to enable rapid development, prototyping, and testing, which helps companies increase a product’s speed to market while enhancing reliability and performance.”

As we enter the post-Covid economy, “many of the innovations born out of necessity in the remote work environment will continue,” Favre observes. “In the engineering community, that meant innovating how they design, test, and manufacture products. The pandemic accelerated the inevitable adoption of previously advanced techniques like cloud data storage and software automation.”

We are now seeing the economic impact of Covid-19, and the rapid contraction and subsequent expansion of the semiconductor industry has shed a spotlight on chip manufacturing capability, Favre says. “Although semiconductor foundries are currently the bottleneck of getting chips out the door, today’s supply chain constraints have put a microscope on every aspect of the supply chain – from the utilization of assets, capital equipment, and data analytics in manufacturing. Automation, software, and analytics will become increasingly more standard as supply chains are heavily scrutinized for cost savings and competitive advantages.”

What do you think?

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