2021 Predictions: Leaders in tech, life sciences, investing and government look to the year ahead

From top left, clockwise: Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering; Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for AI; Leslie Alexandre, President and CEO of Life Science Washington; Leen Kawas, CEO of Athira Pharma; Peter Lee, CVP of Research and Incubations at Microsoft; Caroline Lewis, partner at Rogue Venture Partners; and Saad Bashir, CTO for City of Seattle.

The events of 2020 showed that making accurate annual predictions can be nearly impossible. But because the last year left us with a flurry of unanswered questions about our collective futures, it’s worth hearing from leaders across the innovation landscape about what they see on the horizon in tech, science, education, and other critical areas.

GeekWire asked CEOs, tech execs, investors, professors, AI experts, and others from a range of industries and organizations in the Seattle region and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest to give us their take on the next year.

How will the events of the past year impact the tech industry in 2021? When (and how) will U.S. workers return to the office? Which innovations will define the coming year? Which technologies will be overhyped? And how can startups position themselves to succeed in 2021?

Continue reading for their responses to our survey. Also listen above to the latest episode of the GeekWire Podcast for insights from one of our respondents, Peter Lee, corporate vice president of research and incubations at Microsoft, and see his answers below.

Peter Lee, CVP of Research and Incubations at Microsoft

Peter Lee. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? I think the smartest companies will have a much bigger emphasis on themes around unity and equity. Ideas such as “conscious capitalism,” which seek to align social responsibility with business growth, will get more attention.

The reason: In a world that seems to be getting more polarized and balkanized, it will become really important to ensure that technologies are available to all and serve to bridge divides. It’s not just feel-good, but likely essential for achieving growth and scale. And let’s face it, there are parts of the tech industry that need to do more to earn trust from people (e.g., for privacy concerns) and institutions (e.g., for antitrust reasons). In 2021 that trust will be tied directly to growth and scale.

A second theme that I think will emerge is the idea of “resilience,” by which I mean providing tech infrastructure that smooths out “shocks” to a person’s life or organization’s operations when major crises hit. As the economy starts to show signs of recovering, there may be a mandate in organizations and institutions everywhere to invest in resilience.

What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? Nurturing a great workplace culture, and associated with that, an environment where great technologies can get invented. At least in the USA, Europe, and UK, it is looking like we are in for quite a few more months of having people work mostly remotely. This makes me wonder what that will mean for the process of innovation— so much of the invention process traditionally happens in “garage” type settings that have been designed and tuned over decades to stimulate and “catch” great ideas. I think by the middle of 2021 we might actually see some signs of whether the pace of innovation is being affected — in a positive or negative way.

How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? The nature of work and life has changed in some really fundamental ways. A lot of these changes are probably permanent, and most depend in one way or another on cloud computing. This is big for the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem since we are home to the two largest cloud providers. Companies, startups, VCs, etc. that specialize in helping people and companies harness the cloud – especially in industries like healthcare, transportation, government, manufacturing, financial services, retail, logistics, etc. – could really go into overdrive in 2021.

When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? I’m hoping by mid-to-late summer. In some parts of the world where COVID-19 is largely under control, such as China, our offices have reopened fully, though employees there have options that allow them to work partly or entirely at home. What we are seeing is that the vast majority come back to the office when given the chance, even though rush-hour commutes can be horrendous. And while every part of the world is different, I expect this to be a common pattern everywhere.

The hottest technology of 2021: Is it too obvious to say “AI” (again)? We may see trillion-parameter pre-trained NLP models in 2021. One of the things we saw in 2020 was a kind of arms race amongst the big tech companies involved in building in extremely large pre-trained NLP models, such as GPT-3, or Microsoft’s Turing, with hundreds of billions of parameters. The capabilities of these systems have surprised even the deep experts in the field.

In 2021 we’ll see this technology leap fully from lab to products, not only for handling language tasks (e.g., auto-writing emails, reading documents in any language and smartly answering questions about them, etc.) but also vision (e.g., interpreting videos and medical images) and even problems in biology (e.g., protein structure prediction and generative chemistry for drug discovery).

The most overhyped technology of 2021: I guess three of the technologies that are always mentioned on these “most overhyped” lists are blockchain, virtual reality, and self-driving cars. Blockchain and VR are getting a lot of new hype, with blockchain mentioned in areas like vaccine credentials, and VR to make home isolation more fun. But as great as they are, both probably need more time to flip from hype to hot. And self-driving cars, well, while we may actually see some really interesting products hit the market in 2021, there is a lot less driving going on nowadays. We’ll want to revisit all three in 2022…

Nasdaq final close on 12/31/21: Gosh, I have no idea. 2021 is going to be largely about the shift from pandemic response to pandemic recovery. That would normally mean fairly flat or low growth in the stock market, but on the other hand there is a ton of pent-up demand for great investment opportunities, including not only the public markets but also startups. The fourth quarter of 2021 could be pretty darn exciting. But fair warning: if history is any guide, whatever I say, you should do the opposite… 😊

Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Think of the three phases of a global crisis: Response – Recovery – Resilience. If 2020 was about Response, 2021 will be about Recovery. Your company/investment needs to be relevant to that. But even more important is to think about the technologies you are developing for the next long phase, which is about Resilience for the future.

One phrase to describe 2021: 2021 will be an incredibly dynamic year of change, focused on recovering from the pandemic.

Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else:

  • We will see big investments and acquisitions in the biotech and pharmaceutical space in tech in 2021, as it becomes more obvious that AI is just about ready for prime time. The impact especially on the Boston-area tech ecosystem will be profound.
  • Despite understandable concerns about vaccine hesitancy, by the end of 2021 over 75% of Americans will have been immunized against COVID-19.
  • Esports will overtake most of the major traditional sports (football, basketball, hockey, auto racing, etc), not only in terms of viewership, but also achieve rough parity in sponsor dollars and monetization. And I’ll earn my A-class license on iRacing…

Magdalena Balazinska, professor and director of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington

With contributions from Balazinska’s colleagues Dan Grossman and Ed Lazowska.

Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. (UW Photo)

How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? While the COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out and providing us with hope that 2021 will be a better year than 2020, we are not out of the woods yet and we should plan for 2021 being fundamentally a highly disrupted year.

That said, if we consider 2021 and perhaps a little beyond, I would say that:

  • 2020 really demonstrated that working from home can be effective in many industries. I expect that the tech industry will be rethinking their long-term policies regarding working from home and hiring remote employees.
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion will remain high priorities for the technology industry, and for academia.
  • The tech industry has contributed to polarization through the various social media platforms that we developed. Our next step in 2021 needs to be on developing tools to help bring people together.
  • The tech backlash is real. The industry needs to take this challenge seriously — to become a rising tide that lifts all boats, not just the captain’s barge.
  • Software engineers will increasingly question the technology they are developing and the business models of the companies they are working for. Graduates will consider not just the salary but also the type of product that a company is creating, their DEI statement, and more when they choose their employment.

What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? It will be a fundamentally disrupted year.

  • Employees in the tech industry will continue to work from home for a good part of the year. It will be at least summer time before things start to truly improve.
  • Another pressing issue facing the tech industry specifically in 2021 will be the disruption to customers due to the economic crisis. Customers will be in all kinds of financial shapes and the tech industry will need to find ways to respond to that reality.
  • Employees in the tech industry will continue to strive for social justice and will bring this drive for social good to the workplace, questioning their company’s practices, decisions, projects, work policies, and work environments.
  • Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have had hugely negative impacts on our democracy. They could do far better. Why aren’t they? Ignore the verbiage and “follow the money.”

How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021?

  • Over the past 10+ years, the Pacific Northwest has really become a vibrant hub for technology, innovation, and talent. Within that hub, the Allen School has been producing top research, top innovation, and top talent. There’s no reason to believe that this will not continue, and continue to accelerate. There are several new venture funds, and several new incubators/accelerators. There are tremendous opportunities at the intersection of computer science (particularly AI) and biomedicine/health, fields in which our region excels.
  • At the same time, Seattle must really focus on bringing everyone together and working toward resolving the very major social issues that the region is facing.
  • Specifically for the tech industry, one thing to consider is that, as we emerge from the pandemic, it will be time to reinvest but in ways that more broadly help the region, not just the tech sector.

When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? At this point it looks like fall 2021. But some sort of hybrid “work from home / work from the office” approach will likely be a lasting impact of the pandemic.

The hottest technology of 2021: We can expect that AI (and generally everything ML-driven) will remain a super hot technology in 2021, especially with applications in medicine and other areas. Teleconferencing technology should continue to evolve rapidly as demand will remain.

The most overhyped technology of 2021: Everything that is driven by machine learning.

Nasdaq final close on 12/31/21: 15,000

Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021:

  • Build technology that will make the world better. Don’t just focus on making quick money. You want to be remembered for doing great things.
  • Get a PhD at the Allen School. Many exciting technologies and start-ups have come out of the Allen School.
  • Hire Allen School graduates at all levels. They are great!

One phrase to describe 2021: “A new hope”

Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: I predict that Seattle’s societal problems will persist and will continue to worsen in 2021. We, unfortunately, do not seem to be on any path toward recovery at this time. These are very difficult problems and we are in a difficult situation.

AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni (AI2 Photo)

Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for AI (AI2)

With contributions from Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf and members of the AI2 team.

How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? Many are actively questioning what work truly makes a difference, and who they will work with post-COVID. This will be particularly impactful for people in tech, who are in high demand, and have a wide variety of choices. 2021 will be the start of a renaissance in tech as people prioritize jobs that have real and direct benefit for humanity and the planet. The days of building tech for tech’s sake are gone, it’s time for the tech industry to realize its ethical responsibilities (see The Hippocratic Oath for AI).

What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? Antitrust lawsuits and regulation for Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Fairness for the rest of us.

How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021?

  • More venture capital and more startups than any time before. Our analysis in GeekWire 2019 still holds true.
  • More female founders.
  • At least one woman will launch a startup that will become a unicorn over the next decade

When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? By July, but the office/WFH balance will change irrevocably.

The hottest technology of 2021: Natural Language Processing. GPT-3 is the tip of the iceberg. Similar models will emerge that will be cheaper, faster, and more widely available.

The most overhyped technology of 2021: It will still be VR. “Our vision is that VR / AR will be the next major computing platform after mobile in about 10 years.” — Mark Zuckerberg, 2015.

Nasdaq final close on 12/31/21: The stock market is unpredictable in the short term, but by 2031 the Nasdaq will be at least 50% higher than it is today.

Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Not pursuing your dreams is the biggest risk.

One phrase to describe 2021: Roaring back from 2020.

Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else:

  1. More than five PNW IPOs.
  2. Trump indicted by both federal and state prosecutors.
  3. Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Life Science Washington CEO Leslie Alexandre. (Life Science Washington Photo)

Leslie Alexandre, president and CEO of Life Science Washington

How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? From a biotech standpoint, these events have already had a profound impact on our industry and the changes will continue and accelerate in 2021 and beyond. Collaborations forged more swiftly, greater risk taking by entrepreneurs fueled by plentiful investment capital and an acceleration in the convergence of multiple technologies will propel innovation across all biotech and life science sectors, benefitting human, animal and environmental health.

The “awakening” to what it means in 2020 to be a person of color, particularly a black person, is driving long overdue change to address systemic racism in all of our public and private institutions. The challenges are enormous, but equally so the opportunities, particularly in the life science sectors. As the leader for Life Science Washington, I am excited about the possibilities to make meaningful, sustainable changes in how our member companies reach, educate, hire and mentor BIPOC; recruit, welcome and retain women and BIPOC board members; and engage BIPOC in all clinical trials in proportion to their percentage in the target population.

What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? Again, speaking from a biotech/life science perspective … we are witnessing breathtaking innovation in new treatments — and even some cures — for horrible diseases and conditions thanks to a new generation of platform technologies, such as gene editing and other cell therapies. These treatments are improving the quality of life for thousands of Americans every day, but come at a very high price tag, commensurate with the costs of their development.

As a society, if we want broad access to these life-saving treatments, we must figure out how to pay for them. And as an industry, we must come to the table with sound policy options that facilitate continued investment in innovation and a resolution to drug pricing issues that are becoming barriers to that investment.

How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? Our region is very well positioned to capitalize on the huge inflows of investment capital into biotechnology and other tech sectors over the past year which are projected to continue for at least another year if not longer. Success begets success and our region is HOT, with lots of attention focused here due both to the pandemic and the massive convergence of technologies and collaborations taking place between tech giants, such as Microsoft and Amazon, life science companies, research institutes, global health leaders, and world class medical centers.

When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? Late Q3/early Q4.

The hottest technology of 2021: Toss-up between mRNA and gene editing technologies.

The most overhyped technology of 2021: AI

Nasdaq final close on 12/31/21: 15,000

Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Startup and funding activity in the life sciences is incredibly strong and investors are looking for new opportunities. So, get busy and take advantage of the incredible opportunities you now have access to as a result of the pandemic and stringent limits on in-person gatherings.

Virtual events provide you with equal access to education, networking opportunities and funding regardless of where you and members of your team are located. This significantly levels the playing field because you no longer have to travel for seminars, networking, pitch competitions, or investor meetings.

Take advantage of remote workshops or mentoring to develop your pitch and then take that pitch “on the road” very affordably by connecting through virtual partnering sessions at workshops or pitch days.

Schedule as many partnering meetings as you can at the major industry meetings and do it from the comfort of your home.

One phrase to describe 2021: The future looks bright!

Caroline Lewis. (Rogue Venture Partner Photo)

Caroline Lewis, partner at Rogue Venture Partners

How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? On the whole it will continue to grow and be strong. The pandemic and social justice movements only accelerated adoption of technology, especially in industries that were slower to adopt before. I believe we will continue to see strong pressure on businesses to improve their diversity efforts but it will continue to take time. Sidenote: Quite interested in seeing how AI continues to develop in relationship to social justice.

What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? I think for the tech industry and others, moving toward a new “normal” will be the most pressing. 2020 was a year of frustration, reflection, and using technology to connect. Consumer demands will be greater and companies will need to navigate how they balance growth with social responsibility.

How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? Hopefully, there will be a flood of new companies with people changing jobs, working from home, and committing to doing something of meaning with their life over working a standard 9-5 job.

When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? For knowledge workers, I don’t believe there will ever be a full return back to the office. It will be more of a hybrid starting when vaccines are made more widely available.

The hottest technology of 2021: Not a specific technology but IPOs will be crazy.

The most overhyped technology of 2021: In-home fitness apps and tech.

Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Focus on doing good work, hustling, and serving your customers. It’s easy to get distracted by all the things you can do or build, money, or the latest news on who raised how much money or went public. Build a solid business. The opportunity is now — you’re bringing innovation at a point where all businesses and industries have been disrupted.

One phrase to describe 2021: Gangbusters.

Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: This year taught me not to make predictions.

Saad Bashir. (LinkedIn Photo)

Saad Bashir, CTO, City of Seattle

How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? We can expect to see tech companies, both established and startups, embrace even more an alignment of their purpose with social justice movement values. We can also see a continuing uptick in the collaborations across geographies amongst tech founders and investors, as virtual networking and connections become the new normal. The economic recession has proven the resilience of the technology industry, so we can expect a surge in interest of new talent attracted to join the tech industry.

What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? In an era, where anything tech creates an exaggerated excitement, the industry will need to self-regulate for bubbles and hype. This will not be important for just maintaining healthy economics but also meeting expectations and trust that people are placing in tech.

How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? As a region, the Pacific NW should continue to thrive but major urban centers within it will face fresh challenge from neighboring smaller communities, who will make it attractive to attract talent.

When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? I see a vast majority of companies waiting for the 2021 fall flu season to pass, before the office doors are open to the regular workforce.

The hottest technology of 2021: Investments and advances in augmented reality applications.

The most overhyped technology of 2021: Dual-screen cell phones.

Nasdaq final close on 12/31/21: 13,200

Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Uncover next set of bold business ideas currently unimaginable that will be made possible with 5G speeds.

One phrase to describe 2021: Relief.

Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: The divide between those who benefit from the tech revolution and those who are observing it from sidelines will continue to grow. A younger demographic will make its presence felt even more in global politics. Age old political issues will get a second take, as people wake up from the 2020 jolt!

Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas. (Athira Pharma Photo)

Leen Kawas, CEO of Athira Pharma

How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? I believe the events of 2020 have pushed innovation across many industries, including the biotechnology industry. The need to innovate to ensure viability is something that can help us be better positioned to make major improvements that could positively impact drug development.

What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? The workforce has adjusted to embrace remote work, but there still remains a need for continuity and connections that can be easy to overlook when working distantly. Companies will need to determine how to properly combine the benefits reaped from remote work while still fostering strong company cultures.

How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? We look forward to seeing a healthier community in 2021. The pandemic brought to light challenges in the healthcare system, but many interdisciplinary groups have worked together to address these challenges. I hope there will be even more of an emphasis put on the health and safety of people.

When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? I’m hopeful this will happen in June 2021 – in line with anticipated mass vaccination or herd immunity.

The hottest technology of 2021: Virtual health providers for non-essential hospital visits.

Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Find a way to make things happen. We don’t know what 2021 or beyond will bring, don’t wait for a “perfect time” to do what you want to do.

One phrase to describe 2021: The opportunities are there — just find the right path and don’t take “no” for an answer.

Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: I think the speed of how COVID vaccines were advanced will push biotech and pharma to accelerate advances across many different areas that will have long-term impacts. I’m hopeful so see similar collaborative efforts to advance improvements in public health including for neurodegenerative diseases.