January 14, 2020

The five tech breakthroughs set to define the 2020s

Oxford professor Thomas Hellmann makes his predictions.

Thomas Hellmann

6 min read


Over the last 10 years the practice of entrepreneurship and its significance in society has changed dramatically. 

Entrepreneurs have adopted the “lean startup” methodology: become social-media savvy, raise money on crowdfunding platforms and claim to be utilising artificial intelligence (AI), even if they aren’t.

So, what changes can we expect to see by 2030?

1. Quantum supremacy

By the end of the 2020s, claiming to do artificial intelligence will have become a complete yawner — because everyone will be doing it. Artificial intelligence will be ubiquitous in business, although the much-heralded artificial general intelligence will still be decades away. 


The real leaps forward in the 2020s will come from three technological breakthroughs. 

First, quantum supremacy will become a reality in the mid-2020s, causing a brief but serious breakdown of traditional cyber-security, before leading to a radical transformation of computing platforms. Thankfully, artificial intelligence tools support the transition from traditional to quantum platforms, so by the end of the decade this transition will be well on its way.

Synthetic biology will... become relevant to a vast array of industries, including manufacturing, food production and, naturally, medicine.

Second, synthetic biology will surprise the world of business, becoming admired for its ingenious, flexible and surprisingly cheap solutions. It will become relevant to a vast array of industries, including manufacturing, food production and, naturally, medicine.  

Swedish startup Northvolt's lithium-ion battery factory.

Third, battery technology will slowly but steadily improve throughout the decade, finally unleashing the much-needed green energy revolution. However, adoption will remain slow and uneven due to trade restrictions, patent disputes and falling oil prices.

2. AI as essential tool for fundraising

While artificial intelligence will no longer be a differentiator for startups, it will quickly become part of everyday life for entrepreneurs. 

AI will help them to identify business opportunities, scan technology solutions, find relevant customers and identify new competitors. 

Artificial intelligence will also become an essential aspect of raising venture financing.

Artificial intelligence will also become an essential aspect of raising venture financing. The initial contact between investors and startups will be mostly through digital platforms, as well as targeted accelerator programmes. AI-enabled investment and monitoring platforms will emerge out of the equity crowdfunding platforms of the 2010s. They will digitally support the entire investment process, from initial contact all the way to exit. 

These systems will dramatically improve what has been a grossly inefficient matching process between entrepreneurs and investors. However, there will be an increased awareness that the system also forces entrepreneurs to aim their venture development at fashionable themes. 

This will make it harder to pursue truly innovative, contrarian business ideas if they don’t fit into the digitally posted preferences of the investor community. 

3. Inequality will persist

At the beginning of the decade gender inequality will still be rampant across the venture industry, especially in terms of the fraction of female entrepreneurs funded by venture capitalists and the number of female venture capital partners. 

However, a growing awareness of the missed opportunities will rectify the situation. 

By the end of the decade, the gender gap will almost be gone, except for a lack of senior partners at venture capital firms. However, other inequalities will persist — most notably ethnic inequalities. 


Due to differential access to education, and especially scientific and digital training, the digital divide will become very apparent. 

There will be a growing concern among “quants” that lateral thinking by “poets” will be squashed by the electronic monitoring systems. Related to that, one of the biggest frustrations of the quant investors will be that their AI-enabled systems never seem to get the people dimension right, failing to predict interpersonal conflicts among founders, let alone between founders and investors.

4. China becomes the dominant tech hub

Whereas the first two decades of the 21st century have been dominated by Silicon Valley as the leading entrepreneurship hub, the 2020s will finally level the playing field. Mostly, this will be due to the spiralling costs of starting a company in Silicon Valley.  

By the middle of the 2020s, Beijing will fully surpass Silicon Valley as the largest tech hub in the world; by the end of the decade, the three 'S's (Shanghai, Shenzen and Singapore) will have done the same.

Other North American cities will also attract more attention. New York (Fintech 2.0), Washington DC (Govtech) and Toronto (Quantum) will establish themselves as leading tech hubs.

Other noteworthy hubs will continue developing in London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Nairobi and numerous Asian cities.

5. Profit with purpose

One of the most surprising changes of the decade will concern the reasons why young people become entrepreneurs or join startups. 

Traditional thinking divides entrepreneurial ventures into two opposing camps: commercially-minded capitalist entrepreneurs who are only out to make a profit, versus socially-minded champions who are trying to improve the fate of humanity. Except that the millennials don’t see it this way! 

Instead of seeing opposites, they will intermesh commercial- and socially-minded thinking, creating a wide variety of hybrid strategies and organisations. 

Initially this will be met with considerable scepticism by the older generation of investors who expect entrepreneurs to fall neatly into one of these two separate camps. 

Yet the thinking will shift when it becomes clear (with the help of artificial intelligence that tracks startup development) that the most successful ventures are precisely those who manage to defy the binary categorisation of profit versus purpose. 

More than anything else, it’s the fact that the most talented young people don’t want to work either for purely commercial or purely social ventures. 

Real change does not come from having visionary founders with noble intentions; no, the real change will come from being held accountable to actually doing it.

Consequently, the narrative of startups, as well as their strategic goals and managerial practices, will become focused increasingly on “doing well by doing good”. 

Some founders will argue that great entrepreneurs have always thought this way. Others, however, will note that real change does not come from having visionary founders with noble intentions; no, the real change will come from being held accountable to actually doing it. Once the social impact of entrepreneurs is measured it won’t be enough to simply claim to be doing something good, one will actually have to prove it. 

The entrepreneurial community will thus become a leader in breaking down barriers between profit and purpose, though larger corporations will lag behind on this. In the next decade, it will be once more the entrepreneurs who lead the way to the future. 

Thomas Hellmann is a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School, with over 20 years’ experience of researching and teaching. He is also academic director of CDL-Oxford, a seed-stage mentoring programme for scalable science startups.