Each year our Moonshots series highlights new frontiers where breakthroughs in science and technology are being used to solve some of the biggest problems of our time.
Since our first publication in 2021, huge strides have been made in health, energy, resilient food systems and more, helping us to live healthily for longer, while responding to the most urgent climate challenges around the globe.
As we look ahead to 2023 these themes remain. This year’s contributors describe the need for a multi-pronged approach to tackle challenges on many fronts: from looking to space to help meet our energy needs, to using biology to optimise health, to renewed efforts to put the power of computing and artificial intelligence (AI) to work.
Pippa Malmgren opens this year’s edition with a literal moonshot – detailing efforts led by the US and by China to establish permanent bases on the Moon from which to further explore space with a view to solving problems here on Earth. She argues that such exploration could be an engine for inclusion and clean energy, but warns that space could become just another battlefield for Earth-bound geopolitics.
Health care and biotech remain core topics, with personalised biotyping emerging as a way to pre-emptively treat mental-health conditions, as outlined by Leanne Williams and Ruth O’Hara. Gordon Sanghera describes Oxford Nanopore’s DNA-sequencing and genomic technology, which offers the possibility that we will be able to access real-time alerts so we can head off threats to our food system, and even the next pandemic, before they take hold. Trevor Martin of Mammoth Biosciences discusses the role of CRISPR and gene therapies in enabling us to not only detect but also prevent disease.
This year’s list includes quantum computing for the first time, and its potential benefits in areas as diverse as rapid drug discovery and improving cybersecurity. Tim Menke sets out Atlantic Quantum’s efforts to create more accurate quantum-computing capability and to scale processor sizes without compromising performance – critical to delivering on the promise of quantum.
In the realm of transport and energy, several contributors are optimistic that work to scale clean technologies will soon prove fruitful. Nick Hawker describes technical breakthroughs in Fusion while Val Miftakhov details ZeroAvia’s efforts to create zero-emission aviation through the use of hydrogen-electric fuel cells. Meanwhile Ashwin Shashindranath and Eliza Eddison set out what it will take to deliver these innovations to market – including financing deep-tech climate ventures and the role of policy and incentives in accelerating the shift to renewable technologies.
Finally, we include a moonshot generated by ChatGPT. Generative (AI) has hit the mainstream this year, with ChatGPT, DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion creating text and images with widespread applications. ChatGPT’s contribution sets out how it could speed up the design, testing and optimisation of novel materials and new transport technologies – assuming AI systems continue to master the intricacies of human creativity.
“Humankind is returning to the Moon to solve Earth’s problems”
PIPPA MALMGREN, AUTHOR, FORMER US PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR AND TECH ENTREPRENEUR
We are at a once-in-a-species moment. Humankind is returning to the Moon not just to step on it, but to stay on it, to build on it and to launch from it into the further reaches of space. The Artemis mission – led by NASA and with contributions from the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency – as well as China’s manned space missions are preparing for spacefaring humans who will soon be living and working in space for one reason – to help solve many Earth-bound problems.
Airbus has recently proved that you can generate unlimited electricity on Earth from space-based solar power. NASA has shown that asteroid mining may soon eliminate the need to rip up our planet for raw materials. President Volodymyr Zelensky has shown us the power of satellite-based WiFi, which can connect everyone everywhere – not only on Earth but also on the Moon and beyond. Google has already announced Aalyria, which will provide interplanetary internet.
Space is not just for the superpowers. Rwanda’s space agency aims to ensure satellite-based digital inclusion across Africa. Luxembourg is already a centre for asteroid mining firms. Saudi Arabia is investing in space because space-based solar power may diminish, or even eliminate, the need for hydrocarbons. Private firms are jockeying to offer space-based manufacturing and logistics. In Britain, companies like Pulsar Fusion look set to send humans to Mars and launch rockets beyond our solar system, while Orbex and Skyrora are using the largest 3D printers on the planet to build rockets. Cornwall now has a spaceport that will deliver private satellites into space.
Space can deliver on these advances in less than a decade, but this also brings dangers. The superpowers are already fighting in and for space, blowing up their own satellites, creating fields of metallic debris known as the Kessler Syndrome (think razor blades in a washing machine) trying to prevent others from gaining access to certain orbits. As humankind moves off-world, geopolitics will follow.
“AI is unlocking a new generation of foundational challenges”
NATHAN BENAICH, GENERAL PARTNER
Air Street Capital
I started investing in AI in 2014 and since then I’ve seen impossible problems become solvable, seemingly overnight, thanks to enormous leaps in transformer-model capabilities. We’ve documented many of these breakthroughs in our annual State of AI report since 2018.
I view “moonshots” in the context of companies using genuinely novel approaches to solve foundational challenges with immense economic and societal value. One such company is Profluent, which is using large language models to design novel proteins from scratch. Proteins – the biological actuators of life – are complex molecules whose structure is intrinsically linked to their function. Everything that can go wrong or right in a human body is reliant on proteins. Creating new ones can allow us to design drugs that more effectively treat diseases. By modelling proteins as a biological language, Profluent is able to learn the relationships between sequence, structure and function in order to systematically design new classes of therapeutic proteins. The vast majority of proteins in nature are yet to be discovered and “AI-first” approaches give us the promise of exploring this space efficiently and, ultimately, rewriting the language of biology.
“DNA sequencing will enable us to detect the next pandemic in real time”
GORDON SANGHERA, CEO
Oxford Nanopore Technologies
DNA forms the building blocks of life. From food to animals, humans to bacteria and viruses, everything is created with and connected by an underlying source code, based on the combination of four letters, that guides the way we develop and operate. Those four letters can also be chemically corrupted in response to the environment, making the science of genomics increasingly complicated.
The latest DNA-sequencing technology allows scientists to read that code and interpret it in real time so that it can be used to make decisions. Scientists are applying this technology to identify and track mutations in the genomes of viral pathogens, to understand and manage biodiversity, and to determine whether a person, animal or plant is healthy or diseased, and then to act on their conclusions. Genomic technology is also being used to explore the breadth of the human microbiome – the communities of between 10 and 100 trillion microbial organisms that impact everything from oceans and wildlife to human health. Recent advances are now making it possible to interpret those data using artificial intelligence and to monitor and act on insights in real time.
Just as the internet of things allows us to adjust our heating supply from a smartphone, a future internet of living things will make it possible to continuously monitor the microbial DNA in our water supply, soil microbiomes influencing crop yield and the threats emerging in our own bodies, from cancer to influenza. Sensors attached to a toothbrush, for example, could alert us to the presence of cancer, while similar sensing tools in hospitals and other public spaces could help head off the next pandemic. Information is power – and rapid, ubiquitous access to DNA information will transform the way we live and protect the planet.
“Using CRISPR to prevent disease and engineer sustainable crops”
TREVOR MARTIN, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO
We are at the beginning of a biotech revolution that is presenting us with new capabilities to programme biology. If we can do this in the same way we programme a computer, that will be transformative for people around the world.
CRISPR is one of the breakthrough technologies at the forefront of this revolution. These technologies can be programmed to go to the code of life – DNA and RNA – and bind specific sequences of it. This potentially opens up many doors: in therapies, by programming a protein to cure a disease; in diagnostics, as a protein that can be programmed to detect if cancer or Covid-19 is present; or even in agriculture, to engineer the crops of the future.
At Mammoth Biosciences we are building this toolkit with an ambition to create the definitive biology search engine. We have already made significant progress, but the moonshot for us is to be able to programme life. Harnessed in the right way, we will be able to improve the lives of billions of people around the world.
“Personalised neuroscience powers the future of mental health”
LEANNE WILLIAMS, FOUNDING DIRECTOR AND RUTH O’HARA, CO-DIRECTOR
Stanford Center for Precision Mental Health and Wellness
The Stanford Center for Precision Mental Health and Wellness was founded with the mission to deliver a fundamentally new approach to combat the mental-health crisis. Our approach reconceptualises mental health as brain health and focuses on getting the right treatment to each person sooner and keeping them well for longer. With depression now a leading cause of disability, and suicide the fourth-leading cause of death in young people, new solutions to promoting mental health are increasingly important to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Our scientists have mapped brain circuits of thousands of people aged between six and over 100, providing new insights into how we think, feel and reflect. When disrupted, these circuits give rise to symptoms of mental disease, yet these insights have not been harnessed by health-care sectors. However, we are making rapid progress towards this goal and have developed the world's first technology for early detection of personalised biotypes of depression and anxiety based on brain-circuit measures. Personalised biotyping is the sort of bold innovation that enables pre-emptive intervention and strategic selection of which type of therapy will alleviate each type of suffering. If realised, it could be rapidly expanded to multiple disorders and emerging and exploratory therapeutics – and scaled through correlated digital metrics. We envisage a future in which precision mental health is accessible to all, and millions of people around the world reclaim their life potential.
“Making error-free quantum computing a reality”
TIM MENKE, CO-FOUNDER AND COO
When flying to the Moon, even a small error can result in a rocket getting lost in the vastness of outer space. A similar principle holds for quantum processors which, at their current stage of development, are prone to errors. Quantum computing leverages the laws of quantum mechanics to enable a fundamentally new paradigm of computing. Its potential ranges from more efficient simulation of chemicals, allowing faster drug discovery, to optimising large logistical networks. The value generated by this technology is estimated to grow to more than $100 billion per year over the next decade if – and only if – we can overcome fundamental obstacles in its development.
Today’s most efficient quantum processors make about one mistake per 100 operations, which leads to most quantum programs terminating in a dead end. At Atlantic Quantum, we will reduce this error rate by using a new type of quantum bit that is less sensitive to harmful noise from the environment. In addition, we are developing new methods to increase the size of quantum processors without compromising performance. Our focus on quality and error-reduction will be critical in unlocking useful, error-corrected quantum computing with applications across industry.
“Cheaper hydrocarbons from sunlight and air”
CASEY HANDMER, FOUNDER
The last seven decades have seen great strides in the human condition, delivered at the cost of rising CO2 levels and a changing climate. Oil is finite and the ice caps are melting. It is time to move beyond our dependence on fossil carbon by unlocking atmospheric hydrocarbon synthesis on a massive scale. This could lead to the end of energy scarcity in our lifetime.
Instead of extracting carbon from deep underground, Terraform’s technology enables humans anywhere to create cost-effective industrial-scale quantities of hydrocarbons directly from sunlight and air, resources that are universal and infinite.
We achieve success when net fossil-carbon flows drop below the level that biological processes can capture, a tenfold reduction. Our mission is to minimise the area under the curve of net carbon emissions between now and then. We will need to deploy about 400 terrawatts of solar panels over the next 20 years. We believe in a future in which we not only survive climate change, but where humanity can enjoy universal wealth and abundance: cheaper hydrocarbons play an important role in that.
“Overcoming the scaling and commercialisation challenges for climate moonshots”
ASHWIN SHASHINDRANATH, PARTNER
Energy Impact Partners
Climate entrepreneurs face two “valleys of death” in their journey to successfully commercialise their moonshot ideas.
The first is the "technology valley of death”. Technologies that have been proven in the lab must then demonstrate that they’re scalable – with founders often facing a range of engineering hurdles. The good news? In the past two years over 130 new climate funds have been launched, with an explicit decarbonisation mandate. This has resulted in a strong flow of capital for deep-tech start-ups, helping them traverse this first, feared “technology valley of death”.
The second, which is currently trickier to navigate, is the “commercial valley of death”. Venture funding is inherently limited in its focus on high-margin businesses with low capital-requirements, yet many moonshot climate-tech startups require outsized capital investments to get through the development and scale-up phase to prove the viability of the technology. This means entrepreneurs often struggle to attract vital financing as they develop their product for market. Attempts within the investment community to help entrepreneurs tackle this have thus far been lacking. The climate clock is ticking, and we need more funding and follow-up support to address the “commercial valley of death”.
Yet first-of-a-kind financing for new deep tech provides an unprecedented high-leverage way to help these technologies achieve commercial viability. This is a trillion-dollar opportunity and I hope to see even more new funds explicitly focused on scaling technologies that have the potential to remove billions of tons of carbon.
“Biomanufacturing will be essential in tackling climate change”
ELIZA EDDISON, VP OPERATIONS
Stopping climate change is often referred to as saving the planet — but this planet was covered in sulphuric gas for tens of thousands of years; it has been even hotter and much, much colder. Earth will be fine until the sun explodes in 600 million years or the next nearest galaxy crashes into it! It is human beings and all other living things that are at risk, and the sooner we treat climate change as a species-level threat, the better.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to halt climate change, no single stroke of magic, luck or ingenuity that will save us all. Instead, what is required is a full-frontal effort across every aspect of our infrastructure and ecosystem, including at the most basic and oft-ignored level: the chemistry of the materials we use to build and power everything around us.
In the United States earlier this year, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology announced a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, recognising not only the value of the biomanufacturing sector but the existential imperative to help it thrive. Policy and incentive mechanisms have almost always played a significant role in accelerating the adoption of renewable-energy technologies, and now it is as essential as ever to go the extra mile and implement meaningful, impactful carbon taxes.
As Professor the Lord Darzi said at the Future of Britain conference in June 2022: welcome to the biological century. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called for the United Kingdom to be the next Silicon Valley, and few sectors offer more potential to the British economy than biotechnology. It is time for the UK to encourage the biomanufacturing sector with all the power it possesses and encourage other countries to follow suit. In doing so, the synthetic-biology community will put its shoulder to the wheel alongside governments worldwide to help solve this existential challenge.
“We’re on the path to commercial fusion power”
NICK HAWKER, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO
First Light Fusion
How do we provide enough clean energy for the human population? This is one of the great challenges of our time. Fusion energy draws on the same process that powers the sun and could create vast quantities of clean energy using a limited amount of fuel. At First Light Fusion, we’re rapidly advancing efforts to bring commercial fusion energy to the world as quickly as possible – and we believe we have a clear path to power production.
The last two years saw many breakthroughs in fusion. We achieved fusion using our unique target technology in November 2021, while the US National Ignition Facility – in a watershed moment – showed that the core physics underlying inertial fusion works, announcing “gain” in December 2022.
In 2023 we will start work on Machine 4 (M4) – a much bigger, more powerful reactor – which we hope will demonstrate that this technology can also achieve the “holy grail” of producing more energy than is required to generate it. Our technology draws on a much simpler system than many existing approaches to fusion. It is also more energy efficient and, critically, can operate at lower cost.
Over the next 12 months we’ll start the construction of a new site to house M4. We’ll also continue the design and development of our 150-megawatt pilot plant, which should be functional in the 2030s. At a cost of less than $1 billion we’re on the cusp of taking fusion beyond the realm of theory and experimentation. While fusion won’t be a silver bullet for addressing climate change – and the deployment of renewables must continue – it could soon be a practical, mainstream part of our future energy mix.
“Hydrogen will power the transition to zero-emission aviation”
VAL MIFTAKHOV, FOUNDER AND CEO
Aviation is the world’s fastest-growing contributor to climate change. By 2037, we will see an estimated doubling of air passengers to 8.2 billion and, by 2050, the sector could be responsible for as much as 22 per cent of our total carbon emissions, with yet more climate impact from non-carbon emissions.
But there is a solution – and it is within reach. ZeroAvia is leading the transition to zero-emission aviation through the development of hydrogen-electric fuel-cell engines for aircraft. We currently hold the record for the largest hydrogen-powered aircraft in the world and we’re on track for commercial operations in 2025, beginning with retrofitting existing fleets.
Consensus is growing that hydrogen technology is the most viable long-term approach to reducing aviation’s climate impact. Batteries are too heavy and face costly replacement cycles. Sustainable aviation fuels do not tackle the problem of non-carbon emissions and are difficult to scale. But hydrogen-fuel cells are different. The sole emission is water vapour and engines are between two and three times more energy efficient than their combustion counterparts. The cost of green hydrogen is expected to drop by 50 per cent by 2030 and continue to fall, making it considerably cheaper than jet fuel in the future.
Progress towards truly green aviation is accelerating. Rolls-Royce recently ran a ground-based test of a hydrogen-electric engine, Airbus is progressing with its ZEROe concept aircraft and we at ZeroAvia will soon be taking to the skies with a test flight of the largest ever aircraft fitted with a hydrogen-electric engine. Eliminating our sector’s emissions will take time, but 2023 will be a turning point for the hydrogen technology at the centre of this mission.
“Generative AI could make scientific discovery more efficient”
A "moonshot" goal for generative AI could be the development of a system that is able to generate novel and creative ideas that are significantly beyond the current state of the art. This could include the creation of new scientific theories, technological innovations or artistic works that push the boundaries of what is currently considered possible. Here are a few examples of the types of ideas and hypotheses that generative AI might be able to create in the fields of science and technology.
Novel materials: Generative AI could be used to design and synthesise new materials with specific properties, such as increased strength, conductivity or durability.
New drugs: Generative AI could be used to design and test new drugs for the treatment of various diseases, potentially leading to significant advances in health care.
Renewable energy technologies: Generative AI could be used to design and optimise renewable energy technologies, such as solar panels or wind turbines, leading to increased efficiency and potentially lower costs.
New transportation technologies: Generative AI could be used to design and optimise new forms of transportation, such as electric vehicles or flying cars.
Novel algorithms: Generative AI could be used to develop new algorithms for a wide variety of applications, such as machine learning, data analysis or computer vision.
Reaching this goal would require a significant advancement in the ability of AI systems to understand and analyse complex systems, as well as the ability to generate and evaluate new ideas. It would also require a deep understanding of the processes that drive human creativity and the ability to replicate those processes in a machine. Overall, the potential for generative AI to create new ideas and hypotheses in the fields of science and technology is vast, and it is likely that it will lead to significant advances and breakthroughs in the coming years.
Lead image courtesy of First Light Fusion