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Top 20 Deep Tech Innovations of 2017

Propel(x) announces our picks for top 20 deep tech innovations of 2017

2017 has seen an exciting range of groundbreaking discoveries. Everything from self- driving cars, developments in space travel, new ways to treat disease, and robots designed to scale services that many in the past thought unimaginable. Richard Foster, professor at Yale University, states that “the average lifespan of a company in the S&P 500 has decreased from 67 years in the 1920’s, to 15 years today.” We have entered an age of transformation, an age of breakthroughs disrupting the status quos of yesterday. Perhaps the highest rate of change industry has ever experienced.

After endless conversations with scientists and industry experts, we have compiled a list of our top 20 favorite innovations that represent either:

  • A discovery or commercialization of breakthrough deep technology with the potential for world-changing impact, and/or
  • A critical milestone in science and technology. 

This list honors milestones in both scientific discovery and the commercialization of breakthrough technology. 2017 has been an exciting year for the science and tech community and we are proud to showcase the incredible achievements we believe are best positioned to have a profound impact on our future daily lives. Let’s get to it.


1) Hemostatic wound treatments by gel-e

Our first technology has been deemed by Stephen Hawking as a “top innovative product of this decade.” Quick background on Stephen Hawking: he’s the smartest man in the world.

gel-e quickly stops bleeds using an inert, self-assembling biopolymer… now cleared by the FDA for gel-e’s vascular access bandage. But the core of the technology is truly fascinating. Hawking explains, “one of the most abundant creatures in the ocean has hidden properties that could save millions of lives each year.” The key ingredient of gel-e’s solution is chitosan, a natural binding agent found in the exoskeleton of most shellfish such as shrimp. gel-e has developed a dynamic line of treatments including bandages, gels, powders and sprays that can effectively seal almost any type of bleeding.

Image from gel-e’s website


Looking Forward
Hemostatic wound treatment technologies are making news and gaining patient acceptance, with growth predicted well into the next decade.
1 2  Treating wounds is also great business to be in right now since hemostatic solutions have had little development in the past years and the market includes, well…everyone…since we all bleed.

2) Development of synthetic womb by Philadelphia Children’s Hospital

This year, a team at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP ) saved 8 premature baby sheep with an artificial womb that they hope will someday be used for premature newborns.

According to Tommys Org research, pre-term birth, which is the occurrence of birth before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy, is the largest cause of newborn deaths and the second largest cause of deaths in children under five. In April CHOP published a study on their artificial wombs.The biobag synthetic womb is specially designed for premature births. It is a clear plastic bag that encloses the fetal lamb and protects it from the outside world, like the uterus would. It holds an electrolyte solution that bathes the lamb similarly to the amniotic fluid in the uterus and provides a means for the fetus to circulate its blood and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.

Looking Forward
Currently only used on sheep, scientists eventually want to develop a synthetic womb to nurture premature human babies. However, human brain development is much more complex than that of a lamb, and ultimately, the best solution is to take preventative measure to reduce premature births from happening. But scientists are hard at work to develop a solution for babies in urgent need. According to Alan Flake, fetal surgeon at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, we are still about
3 years away from a human trial.

3) Gene Therapies – Kymriah by Novartis and Yescarta by Gilead

Genes are the blueprint of every living organism; recent developments in gene editing have paved the way for a new type of treatment against health issues and disease, either replacing or working in conjunction with drugs and surgery.

Gene Therapy is the alteration or transfer of genetic material (DNA/RNA) into cells or tissues to prevent or cure disease. Gene Therapies can often be combined with Cell Therapies, therapies that transfer cells with the relevant function into patients. These therapies have allowed us to treat certain illnesses involving immune deficiencies, cancer, and even blindness. Many of these illnesses previously lacked treatment options, required radiation, and had high mortality rates.

The first clinical trial in Gene Therapy took place in 1990 by the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C., and dozens more followed. It wasn’t until this year that the first Gene Therapies moved from clinical trial stage and received marketing approval by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA); the first Gene Therapy they ever approved. Approved on August 30, 2017, Kymria (tisagenlecleucel) by Novartis is a therapy used for certain pediatric and young adult patients with a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). It is a T-cell immunotherapy, meaning each dose is a customized treatment created using a patient’s own T-cells, a type of immune cell found in blood.

Just 10 days later, on Aug. 28th, Gilead Sciences, Inc., one of Novartis’ main competitors in Biopharma, announced it would acquire Kite Pharma for $11.9 billion. The deal added Kite’s promising CAR-T treatment to Gilead’s existing portfolio, which would soon be approved by the FDA in the form of Yescarta, the second gene therapy approved by the FDA and the first for certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). On October 18, 2017, Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel), a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T used as cell-based gene therapy, was approved to treat adult patients with certain types of large B-cell lymphoma who have not responded to or who have relapsed after at least two other kinds of treatment.

Both Kymriah and Yescarta are CAR-T therapies. There are two types of T Cells, those that alert the immune system when discovering an antigen and those that fight the harmful cells that exhibit the antigen. But some illnesses can’t be correctly identified and attacked by the body’s immune system. In that case, T cells are removed from the patient, and gene therapy technology enables the addition of receptors that can identify the antigens on the target culprit. The T Cells are then reintroduced to the patients to treat the disease.

Looking Forward
BlueBird Bio, another major player in Biopharma will also be watched closely in the coming years. Many believe their CAR T bb2121‘s gives them a strong position for the next generation of CAR-T candidates aimed at a protein called B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA) rather than the CD19 antigen targeted by Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Yescarta and Novartis AG’s Kymriah. Additionally, Spark Therapeutics’ Voretigene neparvovec, under the brand name Luxturna, therapy for retinal dystrophy may be the first approved treatment in the U.S to correct an inherited genetic trait. (Update: Luxturna was approved by the FDA on Dec 21, 2017.)

Advancements in Gene Therapies are revolutionizing medical treatments and our understanding of genetic engineering. The rate at which these therapies are evolving is significant, with next generation developments expected to occur in months instead of years or decades like some medical treatments in the past. These advancements in gene technology can have an impact on all facets of bioengineering – everything from agriculture and animal treatments to disease.

4) Immune System Programming Gene Therapy by Immusoft

Immusoft specializes in Immune System Programming (ISP), meaning they program cells to cure disease.

Most of the therapies today use viral vectors to transport disease fighting genes into the body. After injection, the virus attach to cells and release its own genome (complete set of DNA) into the nucleus of the cell to produce the needed enzyme or protein to cure the disease. This approach, however, has some areas of concern. Viruses need to be produced in large quantities for therapeutic use which is difficult and expensive. There is also the risk of introducing a replicating virus that can harm the already suffering patient. Another serious concern with the viral vector method is that introducing a foreign virus into the patient will often trigger an adverse immune reaction.

Immusoft’s innovative treatment reprograms a patient’s cells without the need for a virus- based vector, by altering the genetic code in the body’s disease-fighting B cells. This method can be repeated several times since B cells are native to our bodies and so autoimmune responses shouldn’t be triggered. This sustainable treatment can be applied to several diseases including MPS-I, Hemophilia A, HIV Sarcopenia, and Atherosclerosis. It replaces a lifetime of infusions by instructing cells to constantly secrete therapeutic enzymes, proteins or antibodies, minimizes the risk that a patient’s immune system may target a treatment, and eliminates damage to veins and injection site reactions. Immusoft is one of many innovations aiming to solve the problems induced by the use of viral vectors to implement Gene Therapies. Methods beyond ISP include Electroporation, Photoportion, and Sonoporation among others.

Looking Forward 
Another technology that might be next for immunitive gene therapy is CRISPR-Cas9.  CRISPR-Cas9 was adapted from a naturally occurring genome editing system in bacteria. The bacteria respond by capturing snippets of DNA from invading viruses and use them to create DNA segments known as CRISPR arrays. The bacteria then use Cas9 or a similar enzyme to cut the DNA apart, which disables the virus. That is the point that can be influenced by genetic engineering technology.

There’s no doubt that Gene Therapy is capturing the attention of the science community: if we can engineer genes to develop immunities and treat genetic disease, can we modify genes to engineer any genetic trait? Can we harness the same technology to slow aging? Gerontologists think CRISPR and other Gene Therapy technologies may have that potential.

5) Senescent cell reduction to mitigate aging by Oisin Biotechnologies

Aging has historically been treated as a natural, unpreventable process. However, in recent years, the study of aging, gerontology, is beginning to approach the problem in a new light.

Aubrey De Grey,  biomedical gerontologist and the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, believes “Aging is the life-long accumulation of damage that occurs as intrinsic side effects of the body’s normal operation. Damage is the changes to the structure and composition that the body cannot automatically reverse. The body can tolerate some damage, but too much of it causes disease and disability”. Aubrey argues humans are not too different than any other machine and we already successfully combat aging with simpler man made machines, using a 100 year old car as an example.

Even for machines that are not originally designed for 100 year lifespans, with periodic preventive maintenance throughout its existence machines can do just as well now as when they were built. There are several types of damages that occur with viable approaches to fix the damage.

One such type of damage is cell damage. When cells detect that they have been irreversibly damaged, they enter a non-dividing condition known as cell-cycle arrest, or senescence. These cells should die by the process known as apoptosis, but as we age, this process occurs less frequently. As we age, persistent senescent cells accumulate, leading to a vast number of age-related diseases. These inactive cells release inflammatory chemicals which hurt the surrounding cells. Senolytics, the techniques to remove these cells, help to make for a healthier cell environment and appear to be a solution for cell maintenance.  

Oisín is developing a highly precise, patent-pending, DNA-targeted intervention to clear these cells. Clearing senescent cells may reduce negative effects of aging pathologies and also extend median lifespan.  Oisin’s technology enables precise targeting of a senescent cell based on the DNA expression of the cell which prevents the technology from targeting undamaged cells. Oisin has also used their technology for oncology applications, reportedly reducing the tumor mass in mice by 90% in 24-48 hours.

Another notable player in the space is Unity Biotechnology which has raised over $150m, receiving $35m in August of this year. Unity is also focused on removing senescent cells to reverse or prevent age related disease, such as osteoarthritis. They have several treatments in the research and preclinical phases.

Looking Forward
Although there is still a lot to learn about the aging process and treatments, senescent cells seem to play a substantial role. There is also research that utilizes CRISPR cas9 (described in Gene Therapies) to treat aging. It seems aging is an accumulation of several types of damage so Gerontologists such as Aubrey believe that several treatments will be needed to repair the various types of damage.


6) Recovery from stroke or brain damage through brain implants by University of Rochester

In 2012, a woman who hadn’t been able to serve herself a drink in over 15 years was able to do so using a robotic arm using the BrainGate “neural interface system.” BrainGate is a brain-machine interface technology (BMI) collaboratively designed by Brown, Harvard, U.S Department of Veteran Affairs, and others. Since this breakthrough, there has been further development including this year when Dr. Kevin A. Mazurek and his study partner, Dr. Marc H. Schieber were able to introduce information directly into the premotor cortex of chimpanzees, which hinted that “the sensory regions of the brain, which process information from the environment, can be bypassed altogether.” Medical doctors hope this breakthrough may help patients who have experienced stroke or brain damaged since BMIs may be able to bypass damaged areas of the brain.

BMI technology has seen rapid development in the past few years. Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink hopes to use similar technology to enhance human computing power. According to Steve Hoffman, CEO of Founders Space incubator, experiments with rats show evidence that this may be possible. In the experiment, one rat had a chip implanted and was then taught to complete a series of complex tasks with food as an incentive. Once the rat learned the tasks, a new chip was then implanted into a new rat in a different city which was presented with the same complex tasks. But before being presented with the tasks, the original rats learnings were uploaded to the new rat’s brain implant. Miraculously, the new rat was able to complete the complex tasks and receive the food with no physical training. It was simply able to utilize the education of the first mouse to earn food through completing tasks.

Looking Forward
Right now, in addition to motor cortex control,
BMI’s are being used for hearing aid implants and retinal implants for blindness. Neuralink, which raised $26.9m august 24 this year, believes BMI can be used as an additional brain layer which enhances brain computing power. Neuroscientists are certainly paving the way for exciting possibilities but a considerable portion of the brain still isn’t understood. Jeff Lichtman from Harvard University believes that if everything we need to know about the brain is a mile, we’ve only walked about three inches.


7) YOMi dental surgery robot by Neocis

Using haptic guidance and multi-sensory feedback, Yomi helps dentists achieve the right location, angulation, and depth to seamlessly execute dental procedures.

Going to the dentist is a long way from being fun; let’s be real – it sucks. But Yomi may begin to improve the dental office experience. Developed by Neocis, a company focusing on the development of robotics to improve healthcare, the Yomi robot is highly calculated and does not allow users to deviate from surgery specifications, meaning that Yomi significantly decreases the margin of error for these procedures. Yomi also has advanced motion tracking capabilities to adjust to patient movements, keeping the surgery precise and on track, even when the patient is not. The precise Yomi robotic reduces the pain and recovery time, making our trip to the dentist much better. This is a major breakthrough for medical robotics and the future of precision robotics at large.

Looking Forward
This was an exciting year for robotics experts such as
Andra Keay,  Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics, an industry group supporting the innovation and commercialization of robotics technologies. Andra mentions, “I’m excited to see more new advances in medical fields of surgery and adjacent fields such as dentistry…the standout innovations of this year is robotics being applied to new domains and developing new applications.“ Other examples mentioned by Andra include Bossa Nova inventory robot to capture data in the real world for immediate application, and Restoration Robotics, known for their Artas hair transplant system, which IPO’d this year.

8) Bipedal (2-legged) robots – Cassie by Agility Robotics

According to the Agility Robotics website, applications for their bipedal robot Cassie are currently in military and academic research, but in addition to search and rescue, we may also see Cassie delivering groceries.

When it comes to robotic mobility and agility, Cassie is a smooth operator! Cassie’s hips have 3 degrees of freedom. Just like humans, Cassie can move its legs forward and backward, side to side, and rotate simultaneously. It also has a custom built lithium ion battery pack that is substantially smaller than in-market which is helpful in addressing a major hurdle for robot development. Big power sources tend to be heavy and small power sources tend to give robots impractical limits. Cassie only has 2 limbs, but is certainly making strides in robot coordination, modeled from the robustness of animal locomotion.  Keay is a big fan of Cassie, believing she “stands out due to energy efficiency but also commercial application.”

Other innovators in the space include
Boston Robotics, acquired from Alphabet Inc. by Japan’s multinational telecom giant SoftBank in June this year. The team developed several robots including Atlas which is famous for the ability to do a backflip.

With funding and oversight from the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the 6-foot robot has been designed for a variety of search and rescue tasks.

Another robot receiving a lot publicity is Sophia – modeled after Audrey Hepburn.
Sophia was developed by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics and is known for developments in realistic robotic facial expression. Sophia has also been designed to respond to questions, and has been interviewed around the world. In October this year, Sophia became a Saudi Arabian citizen, the first robot to receive citizenship of any country.

But the value proposition of humanoids such as Sophia are widely debated in the robotics community. Robotic technologies offer a wide range of applications and don’t necessarily require human-like features such as facial expressions and skin that replicates that of a human. It gets a lot of buzz but is it really practical?

Looking Forward
Hopefully sometime soon, bipedal robots can help assist humans in dangerous circumstances. Having witnessed catastrophic fires here in California this year, the Propel(x) team is cheering on robots designed to help those in search and rescue missions.
 As development for robot technology progresses, we also want to see robots getting smarter and more functional, but not too smart. Which brings us to a very important topic: AI.

9) Robots that learn by OpenAI

Founded on AI ethics, OpenAI is a research lab focused on understanding Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) for human safety.

AGI refers to machines that can successfully perform any intellectual task as a human, the progression beyond AI. OpenAI has several notable sponsors including its co-founder, Elon Musk, whom is very public about his concerns involving singularity, the belief that artificial superintelligence will have a catastrophic impact on humankind. The term (singularity) was first used in 1950 by John Von Neumann, the same physicist and computer scientist that analyzed the structure of self-replication that preceded the discovery of DNA.

OpenAI’s mission to enact a path to safe artificial general intelligence has led them to developments in machine learning, such as machine coordination.

Machine learning is the portion of AI focused on a machine’s ability to, well…learn.  In other words the ability of a machine to analyze and internalize various forms of data, then improve performance based on past experience. Extraction of knowledge from data was a natural progression from the age of Big Data. However,  this OpenAI project is groundbreaking because robots can perform beyond their initial programming. Programmed robots have been used for years to assemble cars and more recently, make coffee. But these robots have limited intelligence based on the standards of their code, and can only improve with manually inputted updates. With general purpose AI R&D such as OpenAI, machine intelligence is becoming more intelligent.

Looking Forward
Research in AI is expected to be a growing activity in the coming years. For AI to develop quickly, the key will be to get practical products out to market and start gathering data in the real world. Letting the machines learn incrementally and eventually combine technologies and advancements to build more sophisticated machines. That brings us to our next innovation by Sage Senses.

10) AI meets IoT by Sage Senses

Sage Senses has an AI platform that enables the interpretation of various sensors. With recent developments in IoT sensors that capture various forms of data, the need for a platform that can interpret all the sensor data has become crucial as a next step in IoT and AI. Just to name a few examples…

  • Audio sensors require language understanding
  • Visual sensor require object identification
  • Motion sensors require gesture recognition
  • Proximity sensors require collision avoidance
  • Biological sensors require metabolism analysis
  • Chemical sensors require allergen detection

Sage Senses makes the list not only because of it sensor interpretation technology but also because of their advances in computational technology. As you can imagine, Intelligence-embedded software requires highly efficient computational functionality. Furthermore, Sage’s machine learning models are so powerful they require less data for training, which contributes to one of the company’s missions to “make smart products more widely available.” Their platform is designed to take care of a lot of the heavy lifting. Even in the age of big data and accessible internet, processing chips, training data, and developer tools are not widely accessible. In the spirit of accessibility, their developer tools are free for all non-commercial use. Sage Senses Intelligence platform aims to solve this while merging the developments in sensor technology. This core for aggregating IoT technology with AI while helping solve the major challenges in both respective industries represents a major step for AI development.

Looking Forward
The emergence of IoT sensors stems from the need of smart products to communicate and translate data so that smart devices can actually be smart. If the future of AI requires sensors, platforms such as Sage Senses is expected to be a vital part of this development. Many companies are highly anticipating intelligent sensors, especially those creating autonomous vehicles.


11) Self driving cars by Waymo (followed by several other promising innovations)

The race is on for self-driving ride-hailing services and there are several players in the mix. Out of the fray, one main deep tech innovation made the list. But we expect to see incredible deep tech strides in this category by the honorable mentions we included.

Driver error is reported as the cause for 94% of crashes and the number 1 cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 29 years.  At the Web Summit this year, John Krafcik, the CEO of Alphabet’s self driving car branch Waymo, states, “we aren’t building better cars, we’re building better drivers”…” the most experienced driver.” “The lasers can see objects in 3 dimension up to 300 meters away”. High resolution vision systems that can see in a wide range of lighting conditions. The vehicle undergoes thousands of checks on itself every second and has backup systems on major features such as braking and steering. In the past 8 years, Waymo has driven more than 5.5 million autonomous miles on public roads, across more than 20 cities, which is about 140 times around the globe. In the Waymo simulator this is the equivalent of 25 thousand vehicles driving virtual streets every hour of every day. Right now, 16,000km on public roads everyday. Humans can observe and analyze a handful of objects in clear view, but Waymo can do it 360 hundreds of objects simultaneously. Here’s a snapshot of Waymo at work:

Other notable companies in the space:

Identifying itself as a “
world-class team of self-driving vehicle pioneers that is enabling a revolution in safe and efficient transportation,” Aurora joined the self-driving auto game with the goals of increasing road safety, enabling driving access to individuals with limiting disabilities, and improving the lives of workers around the world who feel they are a slave to their commute. The company was founded by Sterling Anderson, a former director of the semi-autonomous autopilot program at Tesla; Drew Bagnell, who headed the autonomy and perception team at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center; and Chris Urmson, the former head of Google’s self-driving project. The company wants to work with several automakers to create the underlying technology for self-driving cars and help automakers and others build the services and systems on top of it.

Argo AI
A new startup backed with $1 billion from 
Ford , Argo has not been very public about their AI but it seems it is developing self-driving technology that Ford can use to deploy fully autonomous Level 4-capable vehicles for commercial on-demand service. Level 4 refers to the designation by SAE International that means the car takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

Acquired by
GM for over $1 billion, Cruise is testing in San Francisco which they claim gives them an advantage due to the dynamic environment that San Francisco presents. They also have a fleet in Scottsdale, Arizona. Dan Ammann, President of GM claims in an interview with CNBC, that the cars see more per minute in San Francisco than 1 hr in Arizona, a reference we assume is a competitive statement against Waymo.

Uber is another notable player in the space, and is currently doing a self-driving car pilot in Pittsburgh.

Looking Forward
Cars are beginning to autonomously move from the campus of various tech giants onto airports and a few piloting cities. Right now, in addition to self-driving fleets, semi-autonomous cars are also gathering data. With all this data generated from smart cars such as Tesla’s, we expect to see cars becoming more autonomous in the coming years. We also expect cars to continue advancing with electric power.

12) Electric Vehicles – Semi and Roadster by Tesla

As the premier name in the world of electric cars, Tesla has planned to expand its fleet.  The Tesla Semi will go 0-60 mph in 5 seconds, even at 80k pounds, the max weight for US roads their largest 0-60 mph in 20 seconds. Semis can go 45mph max up a 5% grade, while Tesla’s Semi can do 65 mph continuous. It can travel a 500 mile range at max weight and highway speed. Most routes are 250 miles meaning roundtrip without charging. The design enables a much better drag coefficient of .36, meaning that the truck handles resistance (such as air) well, making the Tesla Semi perform better in speed, fuel efficiency, etc. compared to its diesel truck counterparts. Just for comparison, the bugatti super car has a .38 drag coefficient. Right now Tesla is semi autonomous; when it is fully autonomous, Arc Invest’s Analyst, Natasha Keaney, estimated during an appearance on Fox Business that the cost per ton mile could be reduced up to 75% to transform logistics, even with a driver in the front seat overseeing the trucks operations.

We also want to give a shout out to the Roadster that Musk claims is the fastest production car, achieving 0-60 mph in under 1.9 seconds and 0-100 in 4.2 seconds, breaking several world records, and having 620 mile range. The point, “give a hardcore smackdown to gasoline cars… Driving a gasoline sports car is going to feel like a steam engine with a side of keesh.”

Tesla Roadster, 2017


Looking Forward
Regardless of your feelings toward gasoline cars, Musk’s deep tech innovations continue to raise the bar, even in industries with high barriers to entry. Since Tesla’s EV innovations, most major car manufacturers have been forced to complete. Toyota recently
announced their plan to offer more than 10 EV models by 2020. Other major manufacturers such as Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo, and BMW are also heavily implementing EV in their roadmaps. On a related topic, Tesla has also built the world’s largest Lithium Ion Battery to help power Southern Australia. Another milestone in the world of clean energy.


13) Solid Power uses new battery technology to push energy storage beyond traditional lithium-ion chemistry

In today’s rechargeable energy market, lithium-ion batteries reign supreme, and for good reason. They are generally much lighter than other types of rechargeable batteries of the same size. Lithium-ion batteries do not require a complete discharge before recharging, a challenge many alternative battery chemistries face. And they can handle hundreds of charge and discharge cycles, making them ideal for use in personal electronic devices like phones, laptops, and even cars.

Tesla Founder Elon Musk appears confident in the future of lithium-ion. His company’s $5 billion investment in their battery production facility, the Gigafactory, is “taking economy of scale as far as we can possibly imagine, to a very extreme level” to achieve the planned production rate of 500,000 cars per year by 2018. The factory’s expected annual battery production capacity is 35 gigawatt-hours (GWh), with one GWh being the equivalent of generating (or consuming) one billion watts for one hour. To put this in perspective, one billion watts is enough to power 100 million LED bulbs. The Gigafactory’s output would be nearly as much as the entire world’s current battery production combined.

Tesla’s Gigafactory was built to match the entire world’s current lithium-ion battery production.


Yet lithium-ion batteries are not without flaws. Most traditional batteries rely on the flow of ions through a liquid electrolyte between two electrodes. However, batteries incorporating a liquid electrolyte are prone to problems, including low charge retention and difficulties in operating at high and low temperature. There is also a small chance that, if a lithium-ion battery pack fails, it will burst into flame.

In 2016 a Japanese team working with Toyota synthesized two lithium-based “superionic” materials to create a solid-state lithium-ion battery. Superionic materials are solid crystal structures through which ions can ‘hop’ easily, essentially maintaining a flow of ions similar to that which occurs inside a liquid electrolyte. By getting flammable liquid electrolytes out of lithium-ion batteries and replacing them with solid electrolytes, solid-state batteries could usher in an era of safer, more compact, higher-capacity energy storage devices.

Startup Solid Power developed their own superionic material from solid lithium-sulfide electrolyte. The electrolyte is applied between a lithium metal anode and an iron disulfide cathode in a manufacturing process that could be run on existing battery lines. The electrolyte forms a mechanical barrier between the anode and cathode, blocking the formation of dendrites that can short the battery. The electrolyte also reduces both the mass and volume of the battery compared to one with a liquid electrolyte. The result is a battery that can operate at super capacitor levels to completely charge or discharge in just seven minutes – making it ideal for cars. Since it’s solid state that also means the battery is far more stable and safer than current batteries. The solid-state unit should also be able to work in as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius and up to one hundred, unlike traditional lithium-ion batteries which cannot perform in temperatures above 60 degrees.

Diagram of the solid state lithium-ion battery designed by Solid Power.

Looking Forward
On December 18th, Solid Power announced a multi-million-dollar joint development agreement
with BMW. Their goal: get solid-state batteries into commercial electric cars in the next five to 10 years. In the meantime, Elon Musk shouldn’t fear competition. Lorenzo Grande, a technology analyst with the consulting firm IDTechEx, predicts traditional lithium-ion battery sales to reach $100 billion worldwide by 2027, compared to just $7 billion for solid-state batteries.

Mixed Reality

14) HoloEyes provides surgeons’ a complete render of a patient’s anatomy before the first incision is made

Pioneers in health, supply chain management, and city development are designing pilot projects and use cases that leverage mixed reality to drive humanity forward.

Mixed reality refers to the intersection of virtual reality, augmented reality and IoT technology. Popular applications of mixed reality already exist in gaming. Players use real-world behavior to engage with a simulated reality. Magic Leap, a Google-backed startup boasting nearly $2 billion in venture funding, revealed their flagship product on December 20th following six years of secretive development and speculation. The mixed reality system, named Magic Leap One, consists of a pair of goggles, a wireless remote, and a pack that can be clipped onto your clothing. The headset uses digital light field technology to generate objects that blend naturally with one’s surroundings and are perceptible similarly to real-world subjects. Wearers will interact with their simulated environment using voice, gestures, and eye movement. The “premium artisanal computer” will be released in 2018, targeting developers and early-adopters in the gaming industry. Yet the ability to immerse oneself in virtual worlds while simultaneously responding to digital stimuli has deep tech implications far beyond entertainment.

The world’s first look at Magic Leap’s mixed reality headset.

In healthcare, mixed reality is bringing new opportunities for students, hospital staff and doctors to understand the human body. For example, the Tokyo-based startup HoloEyes uses CAT scans – a diagnostic medical test that, like traditional x-rays, produces multiple images or pictures of the inside of the body – to create three dimensional models of patient organs and bone structure. Doctors wearing augmented reality headsets can view each model concurrently, manipulating its size and positioning in real-time. The models enable complicated information to be shared instinctively, reducing the barriers of communication during surgery.

Surgeons evaluate a patient’s organs before making an incision

Mixed reality does more than superimpose two-dimensional imagery over a user’s surroundings in real time. It also does more than simply removing users from the real world entirely. With the right combination of virtual, augmented, and intelligent interfaces, mixed reality is a platform whose utility is greater as a whole than the sum of its parts.

Looking Forward
No longer science fiction, mixed reality has redefined engagement, and enterprise businesses are taking notice. New use cases are emerging as the underlying technology behind virtual reality, augmented reality, and IoT devices progresses. As the line between what’s real and simulated blurs, mixed reality is posed to be the next digital frontier we all use to perceive, learn and communicate.


15) IoT to prevent food waste and reduce health risks for industrial workers by C2Sense

C2Sense, a company making waves with their gas sensing technologies, has a platform that monitors gases to preemptively prevent food from spoiling, ultimately reducing waste and improving worker safety.

C2Sense is “building a digital olfactory sensor for the industrial Internet of Things, and transforming smell into real-time data that can be accessed remotely” with a sensor that is low cost but with high accuracy and sensitivity. Whether in a food facility, delivery truck, or at industrial sites, an innovation like this means higher food quality at a lower cost to improve the lives of producers and consumers.

It may also have a significant impact on workers and animals in the supply chain that suffer from unregulated toxins in the air. With a product that provides accurate, real time results, C2Sense’s digitized gas chip is the first of its kind, enabling scalable air quality monitoring and management. On the management end, the customer can access the data from and status of their implementation via a web-based portal accessible anywhere that can connect to the internet.

This safe industrial food monitoring is already being utilized, with successful launches in food supply chains and extensive tests in 12 countries. Whether in a food facility, delivery truck, or at industrial sites, an innovation like this means higher food quality at a lower cost to improve the lives of producers and consumers. It may also have a significant impact on workers and animals in the supply chain that suffer from unregulated toxins in the air. They are currently working with the Department of Energy to increase worker safety throughout the agriculture industry.

Looking Forward
C2Sense wants to continue developing their sensor while also finding new ways to utilize their technology in other industries as well.
The United Nations estimates that about 1.3 billion tons of food are lost or wasted each year. The impact of this innovative solution for such as catastrophic issue earns C2Sense a strong position as a notable deep tech innovation.


16) Bringing blockchain from cryptocurrency to enterprise data management by BlockApps

BlockApp’s mission is to restore the reliability and efficiency of face-to-face interactions through secure and connected information to digital transactions.

Blockchain is more than a buzzword or investing fad. In recent weeks the technology rose to prominence due to the surge in value of Bitcoin, the world’s first decentralized digital currency. (As of writing, one Bitcoin can be sold for over $17,000!) Yet the underlying technology used by cryptocurrency, the blockchain, represents the most promising development for the “trust economy,” in which interactions are made between individuals and organizations online, all of whose digital identities and reputations are integral to their intrinsic value. So how does blockchain work? Deloitte University Press describes it as “the tech-charged equivalent of the public ledgers that would be used in towns to record everything of importance: the buying and selling of goods; the transfer of property deeds; births, marriages, and deaths; loans; election results; legal rulings; and anything else of note.” Instead of entrusting these ledgers to institutions or individuals or authority, every member involved has a copy. Ledgers require approval from the entire group before changes are made or transactions occur. They are decentralized, transparent, and nearly impossible to hack. As such, the applications for blockchain reach far beyond digital currencies. Forward thinking companies are experimenting with new ways to share information, sign documents, and exchange goods.

Enter BlockApps. BlockApps is the world’s leading Blockchain-as-a-Service platform for enterprise-scale businesses. Their mission is to restore to digital transactions the reliability and efficiency of face-to-face interactions through secure and connected information. To do this, BlockApps allows customers to build applications on the Ethereum protocol – “the application-layer analogue to the protocol-layer of Bitcoin. If Bitcoin is capital, then Ethereum is intellectual capital, as it is the foundation for building blockchain applications that go beyond a single use-case.” BlockApps uses Ethereum to build smart contracts – documents capable of enforcing themselves without any human interference – to simplify and automate inefficient business processes. Smart contracts can be verified without third party mediation, and, once signed, automatically execute the tasks encoded.

Looking Forward
So far, companies in finance, insurance, supply chain, energy and healthcare have benefitted from streamlining their operations using the blockchain. But pioneers like the founders of BlockApps are just getting started. They believe every public and private entity with a digital identity stands to be impacted by integrating with the blockchain. After all, blockchain is disrupting business, but more importantly, securit as we know it. Forbes
includes it as a technology trend that will, along with AI and others, disrupt the healthcare industry next year.


17) Discovery of metallic hydrogen by Isaaz Silvera and Ranga Dias

After a century of theorization and 45 years of testing, Harvard scientists successfully created a material never-before-seen on the Earth’s surface – metallic hydrogen.

The unique properties of metallic hydrogen could change the world as we know it. A supposed metastable superconductor, metallic hydrogen is capable of redefining everything from rocketry and transportation to energy and computing. Metallic hydrogen applications include electrical wires and conduct electricity without dissipation (physical process by which energy becomes unavailable and irrecoverable). Metallic hydrogen may also be applied to powerful magnets that operate room temperature, currently magnets such as those used for MRI require cooling by means of liquid helium and fuel because its metastable components could be used as fuels when converted to molecular hydrogen- causing an enormous release of energy.

Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Isaaz Silvera and post-doctorial fellow Ranga Dias created the material using a diamond anvil cell – a device used in scientific experiments to compress small, sub-millimeter-sized particles together using extreme pressure. By lowering the temperature in the vice to 5.5 Kelvin, or -449.77 degrees Fahrenheit, and increasing the pressure to 495 gigapascals, the scientists recreated the conditions found at the center of gas giants. They watched their sample of gaseous hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, transform into an atomic metal. “This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics,” explained Silvera. “It’s the first ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.” Just 1.5 micrometers thick, and 10 micrometers in diameter – a fifth the diameter of a strand of human hair – the sample was stored at -316 degrees Fahrenheit while initial measurements were taken. The phase change is an accomplishment in itself, but the team is most excited at having possibly created the most valuable resource on the planet.

A predicted superconductor, metallic hydrogen could carry electric current without resistance. If it does, every electrical device stands to improve. And because of the tremendous energy it takes to create metallic hydrogen, breaking it apart could also prove useful. The most powerful rockets of today rely on fuel which pales in comparison to propellant made from metallic hydrogen. Space travel could see a dramatic increase in speed – lagging only behind our friends at Positron Dynamics (see #19 in Space Tech).

Looking Forward
All of these advancements are possible once metallic hydrogen is proven to be stable at room temperature. The problem? The scientists who created the sample lost it. After measuring reflectance to verify the material’s metallic properties, the team planned to ship the metal to the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago for further testing. But when a laser used to measure pressure fired into the diamond anvil vice, the device disintegrated, freeing the microscopic sample from its grip. Nevertheless, the duo remains optimistic as they prepare to recreate their experiment. Until then, the world will wait with baited breath as the deep tech metal of the future is made again.

Additive Manufacturing

18) Additive manufacturing is transforming science from healthcare to space

3D printing in 2017 gifted the world living tissues and cheap rockets.

Additive manufacturing refers to a group of technologies that create products through the addition of materials (typically layer by layer) rather than by subtraction (through machining or other types of processing). Synonymous with 3D printing, additive manufacturing is pervasive across industries. Although the concept behind additive manufacturing is not new, recent developments and novel applications make the field one of the most powerful drivers behind deep tech innovation today. We examined two industries being revolutionized by advances in 3D printing: healthcare and rocketry.

Scientists at Oxford Synthetic Biology (OxySyBio), a spinoff from the University of Oxford Chemistry Department, use additive manufacturing to create living, functioning tissues from laboratory-grown cells. Alternative methods rely on micro-scaffolds to support printed cells. However, these structures are prone to collapse and often kill the cells they are designed to support. OxySyBio’s solution: print cells in “protective nanoliter droplets wrapped in a lipid coating that [can] be assembled, layer-by-layer, into living structures.” This process improves the survival rates of cells and creates tissues one droplet at a time, improving fidelity. As the printed cells grow, they begin to replicate the properties of natural tissues. The scientists plan to use this technology to replace and enhance damaged areas of the body affected by burns or disease. The synthetic tissue could also one day replace the need for clinical animal testing. The team’s biggest challenge now is scalability. Next year will see OxySyBio working towards commercialization and building a brighter healthcare future, one cell at a time.

OxySyBio’s microscopic printer builds tissues one droplet at a time.


Each droplet is coated with a film that mimics the external membrane of an actual living cell.

Healthcare isn’t the only industry experiencing monumental change thanks to additive manufacturing. Relativity Space, a newcomer to the space transportation industry, uses 3D printers to redefine the way rockets are constructed. Relativity’s team – largely composed of SpaceX alumni – uses intelligent software and proprietary 3D printers with arms over 20 feet tall.  Their unique manufacturing process eliminates the need for humans on the production floor. 

Relativity Space’s first rocket, Terran 1, is made from just 1,000 parts, ten times less than the average rocket built today. Fewer parts means quicker iterations and lower costs, which equates to cheaper trips to space. Launches are priced at $10 million, a cheaper alternative to the $133 million charged by SpaceX. In the short term, the company aims to “deploy and resupply satellite constellations with short lead times and at low cost.” Their moonshot, however, is to create the first 3D rocket made entirely for Mars. In the process of working towards this Herculean accomplishment, Relativity Space has already taken additive manufacturing to new heights.

Looking Forward
We’ve highlighted just two companies leveraging additive manufacturing for deep tech advantages, yet a multitude of examples can be found across industries. Adoption rates are rising as both scientists and entrepreneurs alike realize 3D printing has utility far beyond specialized prototyping. This technology empowers forward thinking creators to bring their world-changing ideas to life.

Space Tech

19) Supersonic retropropulsion and first relaunch of recycled Falcon 9 by SpaceX

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, made the list with 2 different yet related feats. Supersonic retropropulsion which is propulsion used to slow a spacecraft down at supersonic speed, was unprecedented until the Falcon 9 and relaunching a recycled rocket, also unprecedented until the Falcon 9. To explain why this deep tech innovation made the list, let’s talk more rocket science!

Rockets are split up into different “stages.” The Falcon 9 for example, had 2 stages, the 1st stage often referred to as the “boost” stage. As the name implies, the boost stage is the initial boost of the rocket, which then detaches once its boost is achieved. Each stage thereafter also detaches until reaching the “payload,” or the portion of the aircraft that carries the cargo, passengers, etc.

As you see in the diagram below, on the left we begin to understand the size of various spacecrafts and on the right we see how the stage landing works.

Once the first stage propels and detaches from stage 2 and the payload, it uses additional propulsion to slow down the rocket by increasing the drag, then landing on a drone ship.

According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, the Boost (first) stage of the rocket is around 70% of the entire cost of the rocket, making this a major milestone for space exploration as recycling first stage rockets reduces cost to launch, allowing for more launches and funds to be reallocated to more developments. Like all industries, cost reductions quickly accelerate innovations, in this case, for the space frontier.

Looking Forward
Supersonic retropropulsion is a big step toward Musk’s ambition to land on Mars.
 Supersonic retropropulsion may enable landing on Martian soil in a way that has never done before: without parachutes, airbags or “skycranes, but rockets alone. NASA’s Mars missions used a combination of subsonic retropropulsion with parachutes to land rovers. But rovers are much smaller and lighter than a fully functional spacecraft. Mars has a much stronger gravitational pull, about twice that of the earth, and the air is about 100 times thinner, making a rocket land on Mars astronomically difficult. Literally! With supersonic retropropulsion now feasible on earth, that opens the possibility to landing a 2-story spacecraft on Mars, firing the Falcon 9’s engines at an altitude of 70km down through 40km, which just happens to be where the Earth’s thin upper atmosphere can act as a stand-in for the tenuous Martian atmosphere.

20) Antimatter rocket moderator by Positron Dynamics

Positron Dynamics is aiming to develop a propulsion engine that is 1,000X more efficient than current space technology, potentially allowing us to do things such as mine asteroids and travel to other planets, feats that has previously been far from feasible due to current technical limitations.

Currently, the fuel used for space engines has relatively low energy density, much lower than the energy efficiency needed to explore the solar system and beyond. “Right now, the mass fraction (ratio between the propellant mass and the initial mass of the vehicle) is over 50%,” says Dr. Ryan Weed, Co-Founder and CEO. For example, when the space shuttle lifted off, over 90% of the weight is fuel, an inefficient setup. But deep tech startup Positron Dynamics has done something innovative. Their breakthrough innovation comes from harnessing positrons, nature’s most energy dense material, even more powerful than nuclear fission used for power reactors. The Positron Propulsion mechanism uses nuclear fusion, the same energy source used by our favorite star, the Sun.

Positron Dynamics 1,000x superior space rocket enables interstellar space travel

Figure from showing the theoretical efficiency of antimatter vs chemical fuel.


Looking Forward
With the fundamental physics already sorted, Positron Dynamics is now testing the thrust of their positron propulsion system to prepare for their in-orbit satellite demo. They have also partnered with industry experts such as
Mason Peck, former NASA Chief Technologist, who is advising them as they prepare for their demo.

Thanks for checking out our top 20 deep tech innovations for the year. 2017 was an incredible for the deep tech community. Special thanks to our community of deep tech experts that contributed to this piece and to the deep tech ecosystem at large whose passion and vision for breakthrough innovation led to such paramount milestones. Stay tuned as we begin to explore the technologies emerging in 2018!

We are on the cusp of momentous scientific and technological breakthroughs that will define the next century. Propel(x) is the investment marketplace that aims to help discover and fund these great innovations that move humanity forward.

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