Market musings

Spotlight on Small Business Technology Trends from the WEF

by Sasha Viasasha
July 1, 2017

Some technologies like app-enabled smartphones seem to appear and change the entire business landscape overnight. Although phones connected to the web had been around for years, it was the iPhone’s rich app ecosystem the kicked off the mobile revolution 10 years ago. 

This year, the World Economic Forum, in association with Scientific American, has released a list of 10 emerging technologies that, “could soon be playing a role in tackling the world’s most pressing challenges.”

These were selected as the leading breakthrough tech because they have now reached a level of developmental maturity that make them more likely to kick off a seismic cultural shift in the next three to five years. They were also selected because they are high impact, meaning they have the potential to solve really big problems. 

What does this list have to do with SMB? Small businesses are overwhelmingly the driver of innovation and growth in the American economy. In fact, 99% of private employer firms are medium sized businesses with less than 500 employees, and 89% are small companies with 20 or less employees. According to Goldman Sachs and Babson College's State of Small Business in America 2016 report, the largest groupings of small business are retail (14%), professional services (12%) and healthcare (11%). 

Small and medium businesses will be the ones bringing these technolgies to market, as well as creating the ecosystem that supports and services the companies and workers on the cutting edge. At the same time, small business technology trends create growth outside of their immediate applications. From adminstrative services to regulatory complicance consulting, new techology revitalizes small businesses and supports the larger economy. 

Here's how the innovations on the WEF list are likely to impact small business technology trends in those three areas.  

1. Liquid biopsies

These have been in trials for many years, but now they have become faster, more practical and far cheaper than ever before. They make it possible to examine cancer cells where tissue-based biopsies are impossible and they can record the progression of cancer cells over time.

Impact for Healthcare SMBs -- Cowen & Co. estimates that annual sales for the liquid biopsy tools will exceed $10 billion. Consider partnering with high growth companies in this field, such as RainDance Technologies, Qiagen, Trovagene, Biocept, Genomic Health.

2. Harvesting clean water from air

Around 21% of the air is pure oxygen and there is 5140 trillion tons of air, with more every day thanks to plants and algae. If you could make water from air, you would solve a massive problem for the 2.4 billion people (a third of the world’s population) who don’t have easy access to clean water. It has been done before, but at enormous energy costs. That’s not true any longer. New tech, powered by the sun, can make clean water anywhere.

Impact for Professional Services SMBs – There is enormous potential on consulting for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). McKinsey reported that 2 out of 3 CFOs and 3 out of 4 financial experts agree that CSR creates value, though the disagree on how much. Many say that it doesn’t matter because creating financial value for stakeholders isn’t the point of CSR. Companies like Zero Mass Water can generate 2-5 liters of water/day using only solar power, which will save countless lives. SMBs can help connect altruistic innovators with the enterprise level CSR programs that can bring new tech to life.

3. Deep learning for visual tasks

Computers are great at number crunching, but they have traditionally been terrible at recognizing patterns. That has to be fixed before innovations like self-driving cars and medical diagnostics can work. The last few years has brought astounding advances in this field.

Impacts for Retailers and Healthcare SMBs: Augmented reality (AR) apps like Blippar can help brands connect with people more immediately. This app identifies what the user is looking at and can add links to where the user can buy it. On the healthcare side, startups like i-Nside have built visual recognition software into low-cost diagnostic tools that can run on a mobile device. 

4. Liquid fuels from sunshine

Like the sun-powered tech that turns air into clean water, parallel developments can turn water into hydrocarbon fuels that burn without polluting the environment.

Impacts for Retailer SMBs: Toyota announced this year that it is building a fleet of heavy-duty, zero-emission, hydrogen fuel cell trucks. Nikola Motor Company will have its own H2-powered truck on the roads by 2020. Retailers can act now to create a support infrastructure for these transportation companies and many more to follow.

5. The Human Cell Atlas

This initiative is less than a year old, but it has made great strides in identifying every component of human cells, how they interact and what functions each one performs. This will set the foundation of personalized medicine in the near future, just as the Human Genome Project did for genetic research.

Impacts for Healthcare SMBs: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is one of the leading supporters of this project. It will be offering financial and engineering support to build an open data-coordination platform so that the findings will be freely shared by researchers and biotech businesses. Small businesses can support this technology by finding new applications and markets for this data windfall. 

6. Precision farming

One of the world’s oldest practices has gotten a high tech upgrade. Farmers now use IoT sensors and data analytics for greater crop yields using less water and hazardous pesticides. In the developing world, there have been many low-cost, low-tech alternatives based on solar power and cell phones.

Impacts for Retailer SMBs: Business Insider estimated that IoT devices shipments for precision farming will bloom from 43 million this year to 75 million by 2020, at a CAGR of 20%. OnFarm, which makes connected IoT platforms, is one of the many small businesses already profiting from this rapid growth sector. 

7. Affordable catalysts for green vehicles

Although California law mandates the highest percentage zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, at least 13 other states are following their lead. The production of profitable but environmentally sustainable transportation is emerging as one of the biggest challenges of the near future. However, a host of startups are working on innovations to help businesses comply with those stricter standards. 

Impacts for Professional Services SMBs: Regulatory compliance is a top concern for 60% of SMB owners, according to the Goldman Sachs report. Small business owners spending an average of 200 hours per year on governance, risk and compliance (GRC). Professionals that can help businesses of all sizes navigate this tangle have access to a market worth $38 billion by 2021.

8. Genomic vaccines

Gene-based vaccines can be produced more quickly, are easier to adapt in case of a mutating pathogen and provide markers for antibodies that can be induced in healthy cells.

Impact on Healthcare SMBs: The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease has set aside more than $100 million every year to “increase private-sector commercialization of technologies developed through federal R&D funding and other support initiatives” through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.  

9. Sustainable design of communities

Smart cities are applying data analytics, AI and IoT to make city services more efficient. At the same time, sustainable design seeks to make communities more livable now and for future generation. The convergence has produced new micro-industries related to:

  • green construction projects that produce less pollution and waste
  • utility conservation tech to lower water and energy use
  • walkable urban zones for safer experiences with lower carbon footprints

Impact on Professional Services and Retail SMBs: Reduce, reuse, recycle and reimagine what community should be. They new spaces need a great deal more creatives, more shops, more consultants, more personalized services and more innovative ideas of all kinds. Public and private organizations are ready to reinvest in well-placed SMBs.

10. Quantum computing

It’s been 35 years since physicist Richard Feynman proposed a quantum computers, but 2017 is the year IBM finally allowed the public to access their fully operational Q processors. Creative minds are hard at work looking for problems complex enough to be worth its processing time.

Impacts on Retail SMBs: More than 50 start-ups and large corporations have already been built on the promise of quantum computing. SMB retailers will gain access to a resource far more powerful than a data center to solve their toughest challenges with cybersecurity, logistics, supply chains and predicting customer behavior.

Some of the most interesting opportunties are where several technological innnovations converge to create something completely new, or where cross-fertilization gives old ideas a second life. The insights gained from precision farming might be ported over to sustainable design, and quantom computing can enrich deep learning.

Most world-changing ideas grew out of the work of just a few individuals. Small businesses are in a position to learn quickly and to pivot, and to transfer their ideas into new fields. Small business technology trends have the potential for big impact and growth.

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