Tech’s Year in Review: Critical Sectors

Critical Sectors

By Monika Ghosh and Sharon Lewis

This article is the last of a four-part Tech’s Year in Review series reviewing developments across industries in 2020. It discusses the world of healthtech and biotech, foodtech and agritech, and sustainability.

This article is the last of a four-part Tech’s Year in Review series reviewing developments across industries in 2020. It discusses the world of healthtech and biotech, foodtech and agritech, and sustainability.

In this article, we explore some of the standout moments in the most critical sectors in 2020.

Healthtech & Biotech

With the world battling a novel virus, the world of healthtech and biotech shined in 2020. From remote consultations and patient monitoring to the use of artificial intelligence (AI), here’s a look at the biggest developments in healthtech and biotech that took place last year.

Telemedicine and e-pharmacies on the rise:

As countries around the world imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19, people turned to telemedicine and online pharmacies for their medical needs. According to a McKinsey survey, consumer sentiment regarding telemedicine has experienced a sharp change.

While 11% U.S. respondents used telehealth services in 2019, 76% respondents are now interested in using telemedicine going forward, the survey shows. Moreover, 74% respondents reported high satisfaction from telemedicine services in the survey. An EY analysis shows that globally, virtual primary care consultations grew from 5% to 95% in the first five months of 2020.

Healthcare service providers have accordingly reported an increase in usage of telehealth services. Indian healthtech platform Practo recorded a 500% increase in online consultations during the initial phase of the lockdown in the country, with 80% being first-time users.

Similar to telemedicine, digital pharmcies or epharmacies saw a drastic growth in users. The epharmacy space has also grown more competitive – giants like Flipkart and Amazon made big announcements, and mergers and acquisitions pointed toward increased interest in the space.

India’s Reliance Industries acquired a controlling stake in epharmacy platform NetMeds in August last year. India’s Tata Group is also reportedly in talks to pick up majority stake in epharma platform 1MG. PharmEasy, an Indian online pharmacy platform, merged with rival Medlife to create a $1 billion entity.

Ecommerce giant Amazon launched its own online pharmacy service in the U.S. In India, Walmart-owned Flipkart is also looking to enter the space and was reportedly in talks with PharmEasy.

Funding galore

As writers for Jumpstart, we encountered news stories of healthtech and biotech startup fundings almost every week, sometimes more than once. We also reported several of these news stories. According to S&P Global, the biotech sector had drawn investment of $20.19 billion as of September 30, 2020.

Increased focus on AI:

From developing vaccines for COVID-19 to detecting patient symptoms remotely, the use of AI in healthcare surged in 2020. The use of AI-powered chatbots to connect patients with medical providers, offer emotional assistance, boost patient experience and provide up-to-date COVID-19 information also increased.

What to expect in 2021:

  • Telemedicine is not going to slow down this year. According to Markets and Markets’ prediction, the global telehealth and telemedicine market is expected to grow at 37.1% CAGR from approximately $38.7 billion in 2020 to around $191.7 billion by 2025. According to IDC, around 65% of patients will have accessed healthcare services through a digital front door by 2023.
  • Genomics and gene editing is likely to fuel the growth of precision medicine, where drugs are customized to match the genetic profile of patients, making them more effective and less likely to cause unwanted side-effects.
  • The growth in the use of AI will continue, as IDC predicts that 65% of medical imaging workflows will use it to detect underlying disease and guide clinical intervention by 2026, according to IDC.
  • Amid the pandemic, wearables have gone from being a fashion statement to an essential instrument to monitor vital health stats. According to IDC, seven of the 10 leading wrist-worn wearables companies will release algorithms capable of early detection of potential signs of infectious diseases, including COVID-19 and the flu.

In 2020, Apple already launched its Apple Watch Series 6 which includes a sensor that can measure the level of oxygen in blood. Such vital stats can help doctors and medical professionals with teleconsultation and remote health monitoring while helping individuals to keep track of their health.

Other apps and self-monitoring solutions are also likely to gain steam this year as the pandemic continues to wreck havoc.

Foodtech & Agritech

As people stayed home during the pandemic, a huge shift in consumer behavior gave birth to new trends. People were concerned about not only eating healthy, but also where their food comes from and how their food is packed and stored. Moreover, more and more people opted to cook at home rather than order food during the initial months of lockdowns. Here’s a look at the greatest developments in foodtech and agritech in 2020.

The growth of alternative and cell-based food products

The demand for plant-based meat and other vegan alternatives soared during the pandemic. The demand was fuelled by suspicions of COVID-19 infection and other meat-borne diseases, along with a growing unease about meat factories and working conditions in meat-packing facilities. Besides, the growing wave of veganism and concerns about sustainability added fuel to the fire.

In the U.S. the sale of plant-based meat almost doubled every month, according to Nielsen data. Startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat reported increase in sales last year. According to a report by New York Times, Beyond Meat was expected to reach $1 billion in sales by 2030, but the pandemic could have helped it reach the milestone by end of 2020.

Cell-based meat products have also gained from this growing trend. U.S.-based Eat Just secured approval for the sale of its cell-cultured chicken in Singapore—the world’s first regulatory approval for the sale of lab grown meat. Singapore startup Shiok Meats also launched cell-cultured crustacean meat last year.

Investors have not been slow to bet on this winning horse either. Venture investors more than doubled their investments in alternative protein startups and poured in over $1 billion in more than 20 startups last year.

Food traceability with blockchain and AI

Amid the pandemic, people were concerned about food safety, and where their food comes from more than ever before. This drove the advancement of blockchain and AI in food traceability. IBM’s Food Trust Blockchain initiative has been leading the market and saw the enrollment of well-known companies last year.

The food delivery renaissance

The food delivery market suffered a huge dip in food orders and revenue owing to the fear of infections and food safety during the initial months of 2020. But, as people remained confined to their homes for months, with restaurants closed for long periods, food delivery began to pick up traction.

Cloud kitchens and restaurants scampered to implement safety rules and regulations to ensure food safety. In fact, with restaurants closed for the better part of the year, even traditional restaurant chains, like Lite Bite Foods, Marriott, opened their own cloud kitchens to capitalize on the food delivery market.

Indian food delivery apps Swiggy and Zomato have recovered from the pandemic and even reported clocking more gross merchandise value than pre-COVID-19.

The rise of agritech

As people wanted cleaner and safer foods, they also began looking at growing their own crops at home. Home farming, using hydroponics or soil-less farming, saw a significant rise in demand with startups more than doubling their revenue.

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of innovative technology solutions and 85% of Indian agritech startups reported an increase in demand last year. As startups raced to help farmers amid the lockdowns, investors see a bright future for the sector.

What to expect in 2021:

  • The trend of plant-based and cell-based protein is likely to continue as demand for meat continues to grow and the wave of veganism gains traction.
  • The increasing adoption of the Internet and technology will keep up the pace of development in agritech as investors continue to pour in funding.
  • Contactless delivery of food will sustain as people remain wary of dining out due to social distancing norms and fear of infection. Moreover, to sustain themselves, more and more restaurants are likely to adopt a hybrid model of dine-in facilities and cloud kitchens to maximize revenue and minimize costs.

Sustainability

The call for technologies that can enable a more sustainable, less wasteful world was resounding in 2020 as the pandemic ravaged on, and exposed many inherent vulnerabilities. The industry came out of 2020 with a renewed focus. Here are some of its memorable developments in the year that was.

Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion Earth Fund

In early 2020, Bezos became the world’s biggest donor to climate activism when he announced is $10 billion Earth Fund. In an Instagram post, Bezos note that the initiative would fund scientists, activists and NGOS.

Later in November, he announced the first 16 recipients of the Fund, receiving a total of $791 million in donation in another post on Instagram.

Top recipients included the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, World Resources Institute, and World Wildlife Fund, which received $100 million each.

In 2020, Amazon’s $2 billion Climate Pledge, announced in 2019, also gained traction. The Pledge, which commits Amazon to become carbon neutral by 2040, gained new signatories in Microsoft, Rubicon, Unilever and 10 others. Amazon also announced the Climate Pledge Fund, a $2 billion venture capital fund that is part of the Climate Pledge initiative, in June 2020. It announced the first five recipients in September that year.

And yet, the company faced criticisms from its own employees, who signed an online statement at the risk of being terminated. The statement, published by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, pointed out that the company still had contracts with oil and gas companies through AWS Oil & Gas. The statement was published in January 2020, a month before Bezos announced the Earth Fund.

Amazon’s carbon footprint also increased 15% in 2019, the year its Climate Pledge was announced, from 2018.

Climate tech boom

VC investments came pouring into the climate tech industry in 2020. A PwC report notes that $60 billion in early stage funding was invested in startups focusing on net zero solutions over 2013-2019. Every 60 cents per dollar invested went into deals of $100+ million. And so, 2020 became the precipice of the second climate tech boom, a sequel to that of the late 2000s.

Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs, became a sought-after route to going public in 2020. Reports suggest that of over 200 SPACS that took place in 2020, about a quarter were by climate-related companies.

Big investors Softback, Sequoia Capital and Y Combinator are all stepping up their investments in climate tech, joined by VCs dedicated to climate change, MIT Technology Review reports. Amazon is not the only big tech to make commitments towards climate change-so have Apple and Microsoft. Moreover, major world governments have also expressed a focus on decarbonizing.

EV wins big

2020 was a significant year for the electric vehicle (EV) industry despite the automotive industry taking a hit overall. In the U.K., at least one in 10 vehicle registrations came from hybrid vehicles and EVs. In Norway, EVs captured a record 54% market share, surpassing petrol, diesel and hybrid powered cars last year. California Governor Gavin Newson signed an executive order, by which new passenger cars and trucks sold must be emission-free by 2035.

Tesla broke its quarterly record for car shipments, shipping 139,300 in Q3 2020. Rival Xpeng Motors secured $500 million in its Series C+, then picked up $1.5 billion in its U.S. IPO. Baidu-backed WM Motor cashed in the same amount in their Series D. Six-year-old manufacturer NIO’s stock surged 1200%­–the company is reportedly worth almost as much as General Motors.

Several automotive giants, including Toyota and Hyundai Motor Group, also made a push for EV in 2020, and battery pack prices fell to $137/kWh in 2020, a drop of 89% from 2010 levels.

What to expect in 2021

The atmosphere around sustainable tech was noticeably charged in 2020, and the excitement can be expected to continue well into 2021. This is especially so for the EV segment, with almost every major car manufacturer branching into this market, and with eyes set on the launch of several EV models, including the Lucid Air Sedan 2021 and BMW’s iNext.

Mobility remains one of the most popular sectors within sustainable tech, but the uptick is visible in other industries as well, such as food, renewable energy (the hydrogen economy is now a thing) and the circular economy.

And although memories of the last cleantech bust are still fresh, the excitement this time around has given way to a kind of urgency surrounding sustainable and resilient technologies due to COVID-19.

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