In the tech sector, 2021 was the year of the pivot. As technology kept us entertained during the pandemic, digital transformation in the business world helped big tech get bigger.
It’s been a tumultuous time. Before we start 2022, let’s have a look back at the year that was in tech.
2021 was the year of the tech buzzword
First up: what’s an NFT? That’s a question surely asked at the dinner table worldwide.
Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, exploded in popularity this year. They give creators and collectors a type of digital asset that exists on a blockchain. Is it a fad, or is it the next Beanie Baby?
Then there’s the metaverse. Shared, immersive digital landscapes which people can move between and access via VR or AR headsets. Facebook rebranded as Meta to reflect its new metaverse focus. Many other companies are investing heavily in this direction, including Apple, Microsoft and Epic Games, the company behind the wildly popular Fortnite.
Forget the big tech oligarchs. Web3 and decentralization are coming in hot. Those two were probably the buzziest of words on Tech Twitter this year. Web3 describes the potential next phase of the internet: a decentralized web run at the community level with blockchain technology. Who knows if hype will match reality?
Meanwhile, Facebook, er Meta, owned the category. Zuckerberg testified before the U.S. Congress and the Senate twice in the same year. First, on whether big tech is doing enough to curb misinformation after the Capitol riot. Second, after a whistleblower revealed that Facebook is aware that its platforms are causing major societal harm.
But there were plenty of positive innovations in 2021. Here are some of the biggest and exciting tech trends of the year in cleantech, fintech, healthtech and edtech.
Cleantech and the race to think our way out of the climate crisis
With extreme weather events further taking the world by storm in 2021, cleantech companies around the world were innovating to help us avoid worst case scenarios.
Tesla might be one of the first cleantech companies that pops in your mind – and rightfully so. The now Texas-based electric car titan has been on a mission to create the next-generation of lithium-ion batteries that will extend vehicle ranges to 400 miles between charges and boost battery life to as long as 1 million miles. How will they do this? The firm is developing new lithium-iron phosphate batteries that will not only cut costs but redefine the EV as we know it.
But wait – won’t all those old lithium batteries end up in the landfill one day? While it’s a reasonable question that’s already generated concern, Calgary, Canada-based Exro Technologies is developing a solution. The cleantech company is best known for working on machine learning algorithms that expand the capabilities and life of electric motors, generators, and batteries (take that, Tesla). It’s also developing second-life energy storage applications that could be a game changer for recycling and repurposing the now ubiquitous lithium-ion battery.
While it seems like every company today is touting their own green strategy, it might be hard to separate meaningful pledges from empty promises.
Quebec-based FigBytes uses a data-driven approach to help companies take direct action to shrink their carbon footprint. The firm has developed a scalable software service that empowers their clients to solve Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) challenges. It does this by converting a company’s operational data into tangible, real-life climate impacts before they develop strategies to reduce these impacts.
In British Columbia, hundreds of cleantech companies have sprouted up from the ground over the last decade. While fusion power may have been something of a science fiction fantasy in the past, General Fusion is making it a reality today. The Burnaby-based company is scouting a location for its Fusion Demonstration Plant – the first of its kind in Canada. Once built, they’ll be testing their Magnetized Target Fusion technology at a power plant-relevant scale. If it works, this could be a game changer.
In other clean energy innovations, Victoria-based Geazone Eco-Courier launched North America’s first hydrogen-power courier fleet in B.C. With 40 new Toyota Mirai fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), all of Gearzone’s deliveries are powered by hydrogen — and their only tailpipe emission is water.
Across the globe, more enterprises are digging up green solutions than ever before. From Write Electric developing the first zero-emission flight, to sustainable lab-grown fish developed by Avant Meats, it will be exciting to watch for new cleantech breakthroughs in 2022.
FinTech shows us what the future of money and investing might look like
As Reddit investors' shook Wall Street with their "diamond hands" at the beginning of 2021, it set the stage for a wild ride for the year in fintech.
Bitcoin hit an all-time high of almost US$69,000 in November. Institutional investors poured US$30 billion into the crypto industry in 2021, more than all previous years combined.
And NFTs were probably the buzziest term in the crypto space this year. Shopify even got in on the action by allowing creators to sell these collectable digital tokens, while Nike bought a virtual shoe company.
But some of the biggest innovations in fintech this year were happening on the ground.
Vancouver-based startup CoinOS built a platform that allows artists and collectors to skip the middleman and save money when buying and selling NFTs. While NFT designers have to pay up to $100 to mint their products, CoinOS’s platform allows people to put NFTs up for pennies.
Fuelled by the hype of those Reddit “apes”, more millennials started investing in 2021 than ever before. In fact, investment apps like Robinhood and Wealthsimple reported surges in app download activity last spring.
Millennials aren’t just investing more, some are building the new investment technologies of tomorrow, today. North Vancouver-based EonLabs combines machine learning with its trading platform that has the ability to conduct thousands of lightning-fast trades per day. In August the company’s tech generated 530 percent growth in just one year.
As we enter 2022, expect more hype surrounding the crypto and NFT spaces. But fintech companies that remain persistent in adopting customers' demands and integrating them into their services will make more breakthroughs in the year ahead.
HealthTech innovation helps us extend our lives (even in the midst of a pandemic)
With Omicron providing the latest scare, Covid-19 remained omnipresent in our lives throughout 2021. The healthtech sector continued to evolve rapidly to help better manage – and hopefully end the pandemic.
Hanson Robotics gave the world the first citizen robot in 2016, the now-famous Sophia. This year, the firm based in Hong Kong unveiled its latest invention: Grace, a humanoid robot designed to revolutionize healthcare in the Covid era. The new android can take patients’ vitals, help doctors diagnose complex diseases and interact with the elderly and those isolated by the pandemic.
In advancing Covid-19 treatments, MIT biotech researchers are using machine learning like never before to discover synergistic drug combinations. The engineers’ platform, ComboNet, screened 11,600 drug combinations this year, 30 of which were tested. The key combinations that are most promising in treating the virus included remdesivir and reserpine.
When the vaccine rollout was mired in chaos early in 2021, healthtech startup Xcelrate UDI quickly pivoted to provide a solution. The Seattle-based firm primarily tracks barcode data on implantable medical devices. But the company developed a new app this year, UDIVitals, to track vaccine doses and gather crucial information about viability. The healthtech solution helped demonstrate an effective way of bringing together data from different healthcare organizations, manufacturers, distributors and government agencies into a centralized location.
As we continued to spend more time at home this year, wearable device sales reached record highs with more people looking for ways to monitor their health. Apple enjoyed the largest share of the wearable market for the third straight year, after its successful launch of Apple Watch in 2015. But Apple faces fierce competition with a number of new kids on the block, especially from China. Xiamoi gobbled up a larger slice of the market with its cheap, but innovative lineup of wearable fitness trackers available. The Beijing-based tech giant launched its highly-anticipated Xiamoi Watch S1 on Dec. 28.
Expect smartwatches to get a whole lot smarter in 2022. Rockley Photonics has been developing a “clinic on the wrist” equipped with state-of-the-art sensors that go beyond simply measuring health data. The Pasadena-based company has designed innovative silicon chip sensors that can probe much deeper into the body. They have the ability to gather data on everything from a wearer’s extracellular fluid levels to blood alcohol and glucose levels. The device then sends the data to a smartphone app for further analysis by Rockley’s own machine learning algorithms.
If that’s not enough for innovations in the wearable tech segment, MIT engineers have developed a sweat-proof “electronic skin” that can track skin cancer and other conditions.
And don’t forget about Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Time’s Person of the Year says his brain-interface technology company plans to implant its microchips in humans next year. The first humans to receive the chips will be aimed at helping people recover from severe spinal-cord injuries.
While Covid-19 will continue to dominate headlines in 2022, expect more healthtech innovations to expand outside the purview of the pandemic. Trends to look out for include microrobots that can deliver drugs safely, and AI used in everything from healthcare chatbots, to advanced personalized treatments, drug creation and virtual healthcare assistance.
As classrooms close, EdTech platforms help the kids (and adults) learn in a new way
The sudden need for remote learning during the pandemic thrust edtech into the spotlight, spurring on a US$268 billion industry in 2021. The ability to use video, interactive software and educational games allowed education centers to continue running and accelerated the sector’s growth.
The flexibility edtech affords learners who would otherwise be constrained by geography or time has analysts betting on the industry big. Both continued adoption and hybrid learning models used post-Covid is expected to push the edtech sector’s value to US$404-billion by 2025.
Because smaller edtech companies have more hurdles scaling up their remote learning platforms, the biggest tech companies have dominated the space for most of the pandemic.
According to a LearnPlatform report, Google held eight out of the top-10 individual edtech apps used in the U.S. from Google Docs to YouTube and Google Classroom.
While Zoom cracked the top-10 most popular Edtech apps in the U.S., the company commanded 50% of the global video-conferencing market this year. At least 90,000 schools across 20 countries use the ubiquitous platform. The firm out of San Jose, California didn’t rest on its laurels in 2021. Instead, it zoomed in on offering consumers more innovative features like Zoom Whiteboard, a collaborative virtual hub. The company even teamed up with Oculus to create Horizon Workrooms, a feature that allows users to meet in the virtual world.
Feeling zoomed out? Educators and parents are always looking for new ways to keep kids engaged in an era of distracted learning. Kahoot! runs a platform that enables teachers to create, share, and play educational video games. The company boasts more than a billion players a year from more than 200 countries. And for Gen-Z tik-tockers, Arizona State University is utilizing short-form videos to engage with new students. The university’s Study Hall playlist on YouTube uses 2- to 3-minute supplemental education videos to help students understand difficult concepts in their courses.
Massive open online courses (MOOC) have been gaining clout for about a decade. But the growing popularity of platforms like Khan Academy and Coursera are another perfect example of how edtech provides flexibility in the Covid era. They offer affordable or free, single classes for those that may not want to enroll in a multi-course educational program. MOOC platforms have lured in more than 220 million learners by the end of 2021.
But the edtech market isn’t confined to K-12 and university education platforms. Toronto-based software provider Docebo provides a cloud-based learning management system to train internal and external workforces. The firm has scooped up more than 2,300 enterprise customers, including Walmart and AWS, up from about 1,800 in March 2020. Another example is K-12 Inc., which rebranded and changed its name to Stride Inc. That’s because the popular U.S. education platform broadened its scope by adding higher education, professional training and coding boot camps through a series of acquisitions.
And don’t count out the power of the edtech startup. As the industry continues to trend up, expect smaller players to slice and dice a larger share of the market of students and teachers who are Zoom fatigued. Four of the companies that gained traction this year include Class, Engageli, Top Hat and InSpace. They all offer something unique to the space from digitizing textbooks with interactive data to real-time student engagement tools.
2021 was a big year for tech. What’s the tech scene got in store for 2021?
Phew! What a year! As we welcome in yet another year of hope and recovery, we also look forward to new and evolving tech trends.
As lithium becomes the new oil, expect even more EVs on the road in 2022. Self-driving? We’ll see. Maybe big tech will finally get hit with big new rules to temper its stranglehold on reality.
There’ll be crypto booms and busts – and maybe the same for those more obscure NFTs. Expect ransomware, well everywhere. More hires and fires and resignations as automation takes further hold across more nations. There could be more breakthroughs in stem cell therapies, cleaner energy innovation, as well as commercialized lab-to-table cuisine.
Let’s hope, the day they say the pandemic is endemic… So we can all agree to disagree to call it an end, my friends.
And when your grandma asks you, “Why don’t you take those goggles off and go outside.” Don’t tell her she doesn’t understand that you’re a master of the metaverse… and go outside!
Until next year, Happy New Year!