Is it too soon to talk about a virus-based battery?

Futurist writer Leon Okwatch, poses an interesting idea in his latest Medium post. He suggests that viruses could be used to manufacture batteries in the future. This may not be quite the right time for any positive mentions of what Okwatch calls, “nature’s microscopic zombies,” but then again, perhaps it is the perfect time to understand how they can be harnessed for a good use.

Okwatch also points out something that many of us may not have thought about: the global reliance on batteries has increased at speed. Not only are they required for basic electronic devices (my Apple mouse uses them at an alarming rate), but the advent of electric cars also ups demand for batteries. As a result there is a need for better, more reliable and higher energy batteries, and viruses might be the solution.

How would viruses be used in batteries?

According to Okwatch, back in 2009, Angela Belcher, a professor of bioengineering at MIT, demonstrated a lithium-ion battery that used viruses to assemble its electrodes. The inspiration for her experiment came from “studying organisms that can grow incredibly strong structures by using chemicals found in nature.”

Citing the example of the way in which an abalone snail builds a strong shell by gathering calcium molecules, a process that is encoded in the snail’s DNA, Belcher worked on the basis that an organism’s DNA could be tweaked “so that it can attract conductive materials such as gold or copper.” She then looked at viruses because it’s easy to alter their DNA.

Belcher experimented with M13 bacteriophage, a virus that only infects bacteria and is therefore harmless to us humans. It had a further advantage: its genome is quite easy to manipulate.

Through genetic engineering, Belcher created a virus that encodes proteins that can latch onto metals that act as semiconductors.

Another upside to working with a virus in this way is that whilst billions of virus copies are need to make a battery, it’s relatively easy to produce at this quantity, because they multiply rapidly in the bacterial host. Furthermore, she “proved that her genetically modified viruses can be used to make batteries that are thin, flexible, and able to fit into non-standard shapes,” Okwatch says. And she has a US patent to prove it!

Why do we want virus-based batteries?

In brief, because we want more powerful batteries that are able to be recharged faster.

A battery created with a virus shortens the path of the electrons moving through it. This results in increasing the battery’s charge and discharge rate, giving it additional energy capacity and a longer cycle life, as well as a faster charge rate. That’s very important for electric car owners.

A virus-based battery is also more environmentally friendly, because the conventional battery uses toxic chemicals, whereas with belcher’s method all that is needed is the electrode’s metal, water, and genetically modified viruses.

Why don’t we have these batteries?

If Belcher first demonstrated this in 2009, what’s the hold up in producing these more eco-friendly batteries? As with many discoveries like this, scalability is the issue when it comes to launching a commercial product.

As Okwatch points out, “The goal is to find a sweet spot where we can achieve economies of scale without compromising on the quality, efficiency, and reliability of the product.”

Viruses have for centuries been feared as the agents of death and disease, with 2020 being the perfect illustration of our sentiment about them. However, they also have unique properties that can be utilised for good, and batteries may not be the only product where viruses play a leading role in the future. As Okwatch says, “nature offers a new frontier to solve problems that haven’t been solved so far.”

The Future That is on Its Way to You!

We should be preparing for a set of major macro trends, Bernard Marr has written, after a discussion with Scott Smith of Changeist. Some of the trends already pre-dated the Covid-19 pandemic, but have been accelerated by it, and both men warn that these trends are ones we should not ignore.

Decoupled economies

According to Marr and Smith, the ‘decoupling’ of economies has been happening for around a decade. The result is a turn to nationalism in some of the world’s biggest economies, such as the USA, the UK, Brazil, Russia and India. As they say, ‘globalization is in the rearview mirror’ now, and we can expect a ‘multipolar world’ where three or four large regions with their own “distinct economies, security networks, cultures, and laws.”

Social change

Education, transportation, energy, food, and healthcare are in the midst of massive changes, much of it spurred on by the recognition that climate change is not a hoax. We are seeing a swell in the numbers of vegans and vegetarians due to livestock production accounting for 14.5% of greenhouse gases. There is also a transition to cleaner transport, and in the energy sector there is a move to meet the emissions reduction targets agreed to as part of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Covid-19 has also produced a transition to more working from home, and we are still grappling with this sudden change in our work life.

A new social contract?

The traditional social contract between citizens and government is no longer working for a significant number of individuals. Marr writes, “Societies have become divided between the haves and have nots, and any differences, whether religion, race, or sexual orientation, create chasms rather than common ground in the echo chamber of social media.” Automation threatens some workers, while the idea of a universal basic income has become a much hotter topic, as will debates about the nature of the future social contract between people, businesses and governments.

An AI reset

Currently we are seeing what is called an ‘AI reset’. The technology presents challenges that need to be carefully considered now, such as the regulatory obstacles and cost of development. On the other hand AI is accelerating and Smith believes another big wave is on the way.

Who are you?

Our personal identity would seem to be solid, yet thanks to digital technology it is varied and complex. Marr writes, “Today we have the ability to represent ourselves as a “stack” of identities that account for various affiliations, situations, values, and more.” Virtual and augmented reality has added to this ‘stacking’. As Marr says, “Given the tools at our disposal, smartphones, social media, and technology, we are free to create a digital narrative about who we are that might not match our physical world persona.”

Finally, we are facing life in a “blend of the physical, biological, and digital worlds.” The ‘new normal’ will be a combination of the physical and digital, and “Every organization must now consider how they provide products and services equally as well and complementary, whether interacting online or in the physical world.”

Some will welcome these trends, while others will be less enthusiastic. Whatever your view, it’s not difficult to see that regardless of opinion, this is our direction of travel.

Fintech and the startup movement

According to Alex Lazarow the startup movement is growing like daisies. Indeed, there has never been a better time to launch an entrepreneurial, technology-led project anywhere. Why is that?

To start with, the cost of cloud computing has dropped significantly and this enables startup growth with fewer barriers to entry. As Lazarow comments, anyone can now rent Google’s enormous computing power by the hour, eliminating the need to purchase and maintain your own server. Telecoms costs are also heading downward and when combined with collaboration software, it is easier now for teams to enjoy frictionless remote work.

Global markets are also looking more attractive for startups thanks to the five billion mobile phone users worldwide and the two billion people with online identities on social media all ready to be the consumers that “ over 480 innovation hubs globally and over 1.3 million venture backed companies” are looking for.

Furthermore, according to the 2020 edition of Startup Genome’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report there is exciting news about the future potential for innovation ecosystems globally.

Highlights of the Startup report

  1. The incidence of ‘unicorns’ (companies valued at over a billion) has increased. They used to only be found in Silicon Valley, but there are now 400 of them spread around the world and fintech is the core component of their success.
  2. The report ranks the tech hubs around the world, and shows that the challengers to Silicon Valley are muscling up at pace, with New York, London and Tel Aviv amongst the big contenders, including the Asia Pacific region. Indeed, Asia Pacific accounts for 30% of the leading ecosystems.
  3. Covid-19 has presented a challenge, especially in the tougher, less resource-rich ecosystems around the world. Venture Capital investment has dropped by 20% globally, plus over 72% of startups saw their revenues drop. The knock-on effect of this is the loss of employees in 60% of startups.

The way forward for fintech startups

Future success will require resilience, and Lazarow suggests it also requires a new playbook, something he explores in his recently published book : Out-Innovate: How Global Entrepreneurs – from Delhi to Detroit – Are Rewriting the Rules of Silicon Valley (HBR Press).

As he points out, it is vital that startups get it right this time round, especially as entrepreneurship is “the largest force of job growth globally.” In a positive way, this is a good time to rethink how to be an entrepreneur, rather than follow the old routes, because it’s a good time to act for success and join the startup movement.

Can AI reduce the world’s food waste?

Here is a shocking statement: “We waste 1.6 billion tons of food every year while 25 million starve and another billion are malnourished.” It should make us all pause to consider.

However, as John Koetsier writes, there is a Berlin startup with a possible AI solution to the complex problem of food waste.

It is a complicated situation because of the vast numbers of farmers involved in the global supply chain. As Koetsier says, “Tens of millions of farms feed millions of grocery stores and restaurants, which in turn supply almost eight billion people their daily food.” Add to that the transport companies, wholesalers, distributors, processors, and delivery companies and you have a massive web that needs to communicate effectively, and it has to do its best to preserve perishable products. And that is what startup company SPRK.global, is trying to fix.

The company was among eight winners of the Extreme Tech Challenge. Some 2,400 entrants sought to deliver solutions to global challenges and SPRK got the judge’s approval. Its goal is to “use AI to understand the flow of food and reduce waste.” Its theory is that this should stop over-production of food and reduce hunger at the same time.

SPRK’s CEOAlexander Piutti told Koetsier: ““Half of the food that gets produced gets wasted sooner or later. Once you move into understanding patterns — why there are food waste cases — you understand these patterns and see they come in a regular fashion … we can move from reactive to proactive, to anticipating, to predicting with a certain probability.”

Food waste is also an environmental problem. Overproduction uses resources like fuel, water, fertilizer and it increases greenhouse gas emissions, because when you waste food it goes to landfill and it emits more CO2.

How can AI fix food waste?

First it has to understand the supply chains and food economics. Oversupply is likely to be given to NGOs and food banks rather than competitors, and SPRK has to take account of this in the rules for its AI system. “Once we have these rules, we can inject them into the technology,” Piutti says. “The technology takes over … and matching between oversupply and demand … becomes more intelligent over time.”

It is starting with the foodbanks, which are typically low-tech. SPRK is building software for food banks that they can use to manage their own operations as well as collaborate with others, sharing being the key aim here. Piutti also says the software will give food banks better ways to access food at lower prices.

He said of the food banks: “They purchase food in a very normal fashion, they don’t get discounts. If we can connect the dots conceptually and say like, well, what if we distributed this food oversupply to the folks in need … they become a volume partner.” He says AI software can manage all this and save NGOs around 50% of the money they spend and reduce food waste at the same time.

As for SPRK, its CEO said, “Our vision is a world without food waste where everyone — including future generations — have enough to eat and thrive.” It’s an admirable goal!