Scanning the innovation horizon

Resilient investors always keep their eyes on the horizon, so they’ll be ready to respond to whatever’s coming their way.  A few things out there in the haze have caught our attention in recent weeks, and we thought we’d pass them along.  One deals with a longtime holy grail, fusion energy, another is an out-of-the-blue development in brain science (wiring brains together seems to actually increase performance!?!), and the last highlights a much-hyped company that just pivoted on a dime in a new direction, exemplifying the power of a nimble resiliency when Plan A comes up short.  All three represent potential game-changing breakthroughs, fascinating in their own right and worth having on your long-term resilient investment radar.

A small piece in the journal Science notes a promising, if small, step forward for fusion energy.  An enigmatic company that has released few research results but is apparently very well-funded recently impressed the fusion community with an innovative approach to containing the hot plasma that is necessary for fusion to take place.  They just showed a 10-fold increase in how long they can maintain the plasma “smoke rings” that are key to their approach.  That sounds good, but they need another 200x increase to make it work commercially.  Still, many of their plasma physics peers are impressed:

“They’re employing all known techniques on a big, good-quality plasma,” says Glen Wurden of the Plasma Physics Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “It shows what you can do with several hundred million dollars.” Tri Alpha is supported by “a very diverse group of investors,” Binderbauer says, including venture capital companies, billionaire individuals, and the government-owned Russian Nanotechnology Corp. “They’ve improved things greatly and are moving in a direction that is quite promising,” says plasma physicist John Santarius of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Fusion is, of course, the Great White Hope of concentrated energy production.  If it gets solved, it totally upends our current push-and-pull between new-generation concentrated sources (natural gas, carbon-capture coal, small nukes) and the renewable energy path that impacts vast swaths of land or ocean.

Meanwhile, the latest venture from battery whiz Yet-Ming Chiang just came out of five years of “stealth mode” development with an impressive new manufacturing system. Chiang is the man behind A123, a lithium battery company that flared and folded to much acclaim and distress a few years back; his new company, 24M, was formed to develop a whole new kind of battery, called “flow batteries.”  Quartz took a deep dive into 24M’s trajectory, and it’s a fascinating read; we highly recommend it.  It’s one of the best overviews we’ve seen of the current state of this other holy grail of energy, new-generation batteries.  This one would revolutionize renewable and distributed energy by slashing the size, weight, and cost of energy storage.  But what’s most compelling about this tale is the way 24M faced up to stark reality when its flow battery design faced insurmountable obstacles, and shifted directions toward the breakthrough that had presented itself along their way.  Rather than creating new chemistry inside batteries, 24M aims to revolutionize the manufacturing process behind current lithium-ion batteries, which (in one of many delightful revelations in this story) is largely an accident of Sony’s shift from camcorder cassette tapes to batteries in the 1990’s. Their approach utilizes a new slurry and other internal redesigns that should reduce the per-unit cost of batteries, but more importantly, would also slash the cost of building battery factories:

The result was a manufacturing platform that currently spits out a battery cell in about two and a half minutes. The machine that does it isn’t the size of a factory floor, but of a large refrigerator (see image below). As for the cells, Chiang calls them “semi-solid,” a nod to their birth in research into flow batteries. . . . The machine would…produce any kind of lithium-ion battery for a cost of about $160 per kilowatt-hour. By 2020, Chiang says, that will be down to about $85, 30% below where conventional lithium-ion batteries—whose cost is also dropping—may be by then. But most importantly, the machine would be priced at about $11 million. Hence, the startup cost of getting into lithium-ion battery manufacturing would plummet. “It’s so far out of the paradigm, you just don’t believe it,” said Wilder.

If this intrigues you, then also check out a recent McKinsey overview of “Industry 4.0,” Manufacturing’s Next Act.

Our final bit of over-the-horizon news is way more out there, though I guess we had to know it was coming.  Are you ready for the tale of two research projects that are asking whether brains might work better if they were not just working collaboratively in groups, or taking advantage of the shared intelligence of the internet, but were actually wired together? Yup, here comes the multibrain bot-net. Click on through to hear about monkeys and rats that actually performed better at some motor skills and abstract tasks when their brains were working together (the monkeys were not wired; they were “just” using biofeedback to control images on a screen in concert!).  But get past your cringing; this line of study into “organic computing” could harken some pretty amazing developments, according to Miguel Nicolelis, the neurobiologist behind the monkey study, and best-known for helping a 29-year-old paraplegic man kick off the 2014 World Cup with a brain-controlled exoskeleton:

(Organic computing is) all well and good and mad-sciency, but what is it actually good for? (Systems like this) might help accelerate rehab in people who have neurological damage. Right now, relearning motor skills after a stroke or brain injury is a long, painstaking process. Nicolelis wants to learn if a healthy person’s brain could help a stroke patient re-learn how to move a paralyzed leg faster than current therapies do.

“This work opens up a bunch of possibilities that people have been dreaming about but have never been able to implement,” says Andrea Stocco, a psychologist at the University of Washington who has hooked human brains together using electroencephalography. “I can imagine surgeons coordinating surgery together or mathematicians visualizing the solution to a problem together. Or musicians and artists with a new way of working creatively.”

So if you’ve been freaked out by the idea that robots and AI may overtake us before long, perhaps this will offer a bit of reassurance.  Or not?

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