The world of tech holds plenty of promise when it comes to the possibility of a brighter, cleaner future. Here are five innovative ideas that have given us reason to be hopeful. Some of them are already out in the world, while others are not far off.
WHAT’S HAPPENING: With the increasing popularity of solar panels and electric cars, the demand for lithium and other rare minerals will continue to grow. The challenge is to keep the green revolution in motion as the cost for necessary minerals rises.
If you ask Astroforge, the answer can be found in outer space. The California-based startup is hitching a ride on a SpaceX flight next year as part of its mission to mine an m-type asteroid — one rich in rare metals. And while this mission will only map the asteroid’s surface, Astroforge believes it marks a significant step toward actual space-mining missions, which may have profit margins of as much as 80 percent.
In Canada, extraterrestrial mining endeavours are taking a more lunar-focused approach. Hamilton-based NGen, a manufacturing innovation hub, recently unveiled a $5.5 million program to support mining initiatives on the moon. And Caledon-based Canadensys is building a lunar rover — a first for Canada.
WATCH OUT FOR: Space travel is exponentially cheaper now than it was in the past. Today, a SpaceX mission runs close to US$67 million — a relative bargain when you consider that NASA flights used to average $1.6 billion. And with a recent Bloomberg report predicting that the space economy, which was valued at US$541 billion in 2022, may increase by 41 percent over the next five years, landfall on m-type asteroids may not be so far away.
WHAT’S HAPPENING: While assistive technologies to aid those with mobility and vision challenges have been around for years, high costs have meant that most people are unable to access these tools. But a few Canadian innovators are working to change that.
Quebec-based Kinova offers a robotic arm that can be mounted on wheelchairs to assist with everything from eating to opening doors. And Toronto’s Hamayal Choudhry, is gearing up to bring his AI-powered robotic device to market. His company’s smartARM is 3D-printed and comprises a rotatable wrist and five fingers that move independently of one another, with a camera embedded in the palm. The arm, which is powered by Microsoft’s Azure AI, can “see” and grab onto objects. And thanks to learning algorithms, the more it gets used, the better it performs.
Meanwhile, Markham-based Visiontif has designed a gadget that can make the world more legible for visually impaired users. Led by engineer Chun Yu, the company is preparing to debut its wearable device, which is able to read signs, books and other text out loud — and can even provide detailed descriptions of a scene. Visiontif’s aim is to empower people with compromised vision to live more independent lives, as this technology can assist in finding an empty seat in a café or identifying gender signage on a public bathroom. According to the company, the device will cost four to eight times less than similar products.
WATCH OUT FOR: Disability tech startups are receiving unprecedented support. A recent report released by the Clinton Foundation–sponsored Moonshot Disability Accelerator Initiative (whose participants include Canadian accessibility innovation accelerator ATS Labs) suggests there may be as much as US$1.9 trillion in untapped GDP potential in the assistive technology market. One often overlooked benefit of assistive innovations is that technology designed for people with disabilities can be adapted for use in other industries, which makes for even more lucrative investment opportunities.
WHAT’S HAPPENING: Agtech experts have suggested that vertical indoor farming may be a key strategy for minimizing food miles, which could avoid the added cost and environmental toll of shipping food from far away. But vertical farming has been through the wringer over the past few months, with ventures around the world laying off staff and filing for bankruptcy.
This hasn’t deterred Osman Hamid, project lead of a novel initiative at Willowtree Farm in Southern Ontario, which aims to dramatically extend the growing season. Hamid is working with hydroponic growing experts and local farmers as well as an automation company that supplies the robots and AI, which can determine if a strawberry is ready to be harvested, or ailing and in need of care. Hamid’s colleagues at Ontario Tech University are on hand to provide connections to energy recycling tech and industry partners.
WATCH OUT FOR: The strawberry growing initiative at Willowtree Farm will have access to more funding after its initial 18-month phase — the kind of funding that will allow the project to scale. Hamid’s team will be using their time to hone costs and production in order to bring locally grown strawberries to Canadians in the winter months.
WHAT’S HAPPENING: CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that allows scientists to alter DNA, and it just got its first endorsement for human use. The United Kingdom approved the technology for two genetic blood disorders — sickle cell disease and β-thalassemia. Sufferers of these diseases have errors in their genes for hemoglobin, which red blood cells use to carry oxygen around the body. The CRISPR treatment, which is being used by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, will extract bone marrow from patients, edit it in a lab, and infuse it back — with the potential for lifelong results.
WATCH OUT FOR: Moving the gene-editing technology from the plant world (one startup has made nutrient-rich mustard greens less bitter) to the human one is a historic moment for medicine. The cost of the CRISPR treatment is inaccessibly high for most ($1 million dollars for a single treatment) right now. But with regulators in the U.S. and U.K. pushing for gene-editing medicines to become economically viable for mass markets, there’s hope CRISPR will become a viable treatment option for many.
WHAT’S HAPPENING: For the last century, we’ve been scouring sedimentary basins, sunk-in portions of the earth’s crust, for deposits of oil and gas. U of T geologist Barbara Sherwood Lollar says it’s time to look elsewhere for a cleaner resource: natural hydrogen.
Hydrogen is an element that’s been mostly pursued by microbiologists and space agencies — it’s a key ingredient for the existence of subsurface life. But it’s now providing electricity for a west African town, and one Australian company believes they can produce the element for $1 a kilogram — a price that’s competitive with natural gas. It’s not so far-fetched a figure when you consider Lollar’s estimates of natural hydrogen reserves on Earth. Sedimentary basins make up only a small portion of the Earth’s landmass, but Precambrian rock, like the Canadian Shield, makes up 70 percent, and it’s here where there’s “lots of hydrogen production,” she says.
WATCH OUT FOR: Lollar’s research suggests there is enough natural hydrogen in the earth to match “hundreds of thousands of years” of current oil and gas production — a staggering endorsement of natural hydrogen’s potential as an energy source. But locating and gaining access to this hydrogen, which is often trapped under sediment, is another issue. Tapping into this clean fuel will require collaboration among different industries, Lollar says — everything from microbiology, mining, and AI to oil and gas.
Illustration by: Monica Guan, Photos: Unsplash, Kinova