Breakthroughs: the emerging trends to watch in 2021

Breakthroughs: the emerging trends to watch in 2021

From medicine and remote work to social finance and advanced manufacturing, these are the innovation trends you need to know.


After months of COVID-19 chaos, this is certain: Canada’s tech sector is ready to rebound. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it clear that Canadian innovators will be essential to the recovery — fixing the healthcare system and doing right by the planet while creating thousands of new jobs.

At MaRS, our tech-community experts work with these innovators every day, helping them develop products and grow the economy. And they’ve seen first-hand how the pandemic has only increased global demand for Canadian ideas and technologies.

Here are our tech-sector predictions for 2021.

mRNA vaccines heal humanity far beyond COVID-19

We now know that safe and effective coronavirus vaccines can be developed and deployed in less than a year. Much of this revelation can be attributed to Moderna and Pfizer’s use of mRNA tech, a new approach to vaccination by which cells are instructed to make proteins and send them to various parts of the body for therapeutic effect. Speaking at the recent Views from MaRS symposium, health advisor Richard Bozzato stated that it’s a game-changer for tackling infectious disease. “This mRNA medicine contains multiple payloads and is rapid to develop,” he says. “A significant amount of Canadian tech went into its R&D over the years — a great group achievement.” Combined with CRISPR gene-editing innovations, mRNA vaccines will advance all manner of drug development, particularly in immuno-oncology. (Toronto-based Providence Therapeutics is currently testing its own mRNA vaccine on humans, with Canadians getting preferential access once approved.) Solutions powered by mRNA will make medicine in 2021 more precise, refining treatment for specific illnesses, people and populations.

Remote work is here to stay

If employers want to avoid irrelevancy, they must be willing to support remote workers — even if they’re in Barbados. For Daneal Charney, that means adopting strong work-from-anywhere policies to increase worker satisfaction, access new talent and accelerate entrance to new markets. “All of that represents a tremendous competitive advantage over rival organizations reticent to join the movement,” says the H.R. professional and executive in residence at MaRS. The remote-work revolution can’t be denied, with some surveys suggesting that 80 percent of people expect to work away from the office at least three times per week, even when the pandemic subsides. Charney has seen it work these last few months in risk-friendly tech companies like Shopify and Precision Nutrition; she believes it’s crucial to make the shift now. “The office isn’t dead, it’s merely become an additional workplace. Thanks to advancements in tech, meeting workers where they are is finally, actually possible,” Charney says.

Real estate gets real about climate change

2020 saw the largest reduction of CO2 emissions in history; however, most of that drop was a result of COVID-19 restrictions, and scientists agree that pollution will only get worse once the world re-opens. Here in North America, multi-residential buildings like office towers and apartment buildings represent the single greatest source of emissions. That means there are vast fields of “low-hanging fruit” to be harvested in 2021, so says Alexandra Zakreski of Toronto startup Parity. Digital solutions, Zakreski says, such as the tech firm’s automated HVAC systems, should be tackled first. Then building operators can focus on larger green projects like sourcing carbon-sink materials, refurbishing old buildings, and integrating distributed energy resources like wind and solar. It also helps that North American jurisdictions are tabling urgent climate-focused legislation, while corporations and investors are birthing climate-focused pledges and funds. Time to get to work.

Analytics bring impact investing into the mainstream

You can make lots of money without trampling people along the way. That’s the fundamental idea behind impact investing, a fast-growing movement that challenges investors to fund socially and environmentally progressive causes. An estimated U.S.$30 trillion is currently flowing in impact investments. That’s roughly a third of the world’s professionally-managed assets. But what’s the best way to get more influential people on board? According to social-finance pioneer Adam Jagelewski, the devil is in the data. “Organizations that can leverage data to quantify impact will attract disproportionate capital,” argues Jagelewski. Impact investing has historically had to deal with the myth that it’s akin to a random act of kindness — that measuring cost-benefit beyond dollars and cents is an impractical, if not hollow endeavour. But today, leaps in data analytics and a more holistic approach to financial reporting (Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Estate, for example, takes GHGs removed from the air to be a success metric on par with profit) make the exercise an easier sell. That’s good news for Canadian investors, as the federal government has explicitly placed diverse workforces, affordable housing and climate-tech job creation at the core of its stimulus package.

Medical gadgets graduate from science fiction

Remote medicine can reduce wait times. Personalized medicine can provide tailored therapy. Preventative medicine will stop serious illnesses before they even show up. And each of these pursuits will be bolstered by a treasure chest of cool gadgets. “We’re getting close to a Star Trek situation where we’ll be wearing scanners to diagnose conditions and tell us when our iron is low,” says Sheryl Thingvold, a MaRS expert in medical devices and diagnostics. Some of Thingvold’s favourite devices to watch in 2021: IRegained’s remote tools for stroke rehabilitation, Spartan Bioscience’s coffee-cup-sized DNA analyzer (capable of detecting diseases like COVID-19) and Mimosa Diagnostics’ platform, which monitors the wounds of people with diabetes.

Distancing brings Canadian makers together

Despite leaving society in economic ruin, the coronavirus emergency has nevertheless accelerated Canada’s hardware industry and its stable of breakthrough inventions. MaRS head of advanced manufacturing Jason MacFarlane sees two trends driving the sector’s newfound growth. First, with dispersed workforces and physical distancing in factories, collaboration tools for design, product lifecycle management and issue tracking will benefit from unprecedented demand. Manufacturing companies will rely more than ever on digital products, forcing the integration of more sensors, vision, monitoring systems and cloud-based intelligence. Second, with international supply chains still on the mend, expect a move to more domestic, even in-home manufacturing.

The global village raises the Internet of Things

Jason Lee is bullish about IoT. Not simply because worldwide IoT spending is forecasted to hit $3 trillion in three years. But also because, in light of the pandemic, Lee, who is a program manager in advanced technology platforms at MaRS, thinks the fledgling tech is essential for growth and employee safety. Consider the possibilities: sensors that can monitor busy rooms for social distancing as well as the flow of goods; hand-sanitizer dispensers that send alerts to janitorial staff when running low; doctors treating and operating on patients remotely via smart robots. Just as IoT is itself an ecosystem of complimentary hardware and software, Lee believes the global ecosystem of innovators will propel the technology in 2021. Big-time companies like Verizon and Vodafone will look to collaborate, enlisting established startup communities for new solutions. And given the hardships of 2020, Lee sees the tech ecosystem model — which promotes bespoke partnerships, product standardization, deal making and government cooperation — as the perfect vehicle for getting everybody back in business.

Many of these emerging trends were discussed at the recent Views from MaRS symposium. To find out more about MaRS Corporate Innovation Programming, click here.