Want to know the tech trends of 2021? Follow the money
A view from Lawrence Weber & Andrew Backs

Want to know the tech trends of 2021? Follow the money

Look at what venture capital companies are investing in now.

It is, judging by the merry faces in Soho and Clerkenwell’s restaurants and bars, very definitely the festive season. The early sunsets and even earlier finishes of December don’t just herald celebration and overindulgence – they also signal that the time has come for writing and reading 2019 tech trends opinion pieces.

There is nothing wrong with any of these prophecies – even the ones we have been lucky enough to write. They prompt debate, they hopefully inspire agencies and clients to think about what they might do differently next year and they give us a chance to contemplate the huge and not always positive effect that technology is having on our lives and our work.

However, looking at what is going to be big in the next 12 months – probably voice, artificial intelligence, data privacy, enterprise virtual reality and humanising technology – isn’t really future-gazing, it’s articulating a list of things you’ve probably already decided to commit budget to. It is a rare brand that has no idea what it is going to do with most of its budget for at least the first half of next year. Sticking to a 12-month horizon might seem more responsible, but it means you will miss the chance to take some real risks with new things that make you uncomfortable but might turn into breakthrough competitive advantage.

So how far should you look ahead? You could go to 10-year horizons and look at flights of fancy that no-one can be held accountable for – that’s where flying cars came from, after all. Or you can move to a midpoint – maybe two to three years into the future – and look what people investing large amounts of money are betting will be big transformative trends in 2021.

Looking at venture capital investment patterns isn’t foolproof – the world is littered with abandoned social networks and Internet of Things gadgets – but when VCs get it right, the things they invest in change industries and, in some cases, society itself.

So, to save you the work (you’ve got Christmas parties to get to!), we’ve picked out three key themes that might be worth adding to your experimentation plan.

Biotech beyond health

The biotech start-up scene has attracted a huge amount of investment from the VC community in the past couple of years – Andreessen Horowitz alone has invested $650m (£516m) in this area since 2015 – and points to the huge potential of personalised and more effective drugs.

The first fruits of this investment are appearing with the recent $300m deal between consumer DNA sampling start-up 23andMe and GlaxoSmithKline that will help drive bespoke drug development.

Beyond the world of pharmaceuticals over the next few years, the ability to take real-life data such as DNA and couple it with synthetic ingredients will have huge ramifications for how brands in the food and FMCG space create and market their products.

Co-living

To call co-working an emerging trend would be fanciful, since half of the working population of east London seems to be holed up in a WeWork (valued at about $20bn) or one of its competitors. However, the lack of affordable housing in major cities and increased feelings of isolation have prompted the explosive global growth of co-living. The concept is essentially posh student halls, but it is attracting major investment: UK company The Collective has recently raised $420m.

This challenges not only the estate agency model but also asks questions of financial services providers in terms of how they serve this market. It is not just younger demographics who are finding this a compelling proposition; the over-50s are embracing this trend too.

Home-grown start-ups

If looking at how other people fund start-ups to determine trends feels too passive a pastime, you could always go one step further and start building your own. There is a long history of big corporations buying start-ups – Unilever and Dollar Shave Club, for instance – but a less rich one of corporations growing their own.

However, following in the footsteps of VCs such as Forerunner and Lightspeed, which are creating brand new FMCG brands, big corporations are being inspired to build new direct-to-customer, digital-first brands at pace, spinning out successful companies to thrive outside the strict and slowing processes and cultures of the parent group. It is, we think, the new corporate innovation model and one that lots of brands will be adopting in the next few years.

You shouldn’t ignore the trends that are obviously about to go mainstream, otherwise your competitors will get a better and quicker understanding of technologies that are about to gain reach and adoption. However, by making time and budget available for experimentation in less crowded spaces, you could find brand new insights, audiences, products and revenues in places that no-one else is looking.

And if you get in too early? Well, at least you have some trends to write about in two years' time when Campaign comes calling.

Lawrence Weber is a partner at Curve and Andrew Backs is founder of Pilot44 Labs

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