Technology Insights

21 top innovations for 2021

Ruth Kirk

Ruth Kirk

Content and Communications Officer – IN-PART, Sheffield.

Whilst Covid-19 may have dominated research in 2020, there are still areas of innovation rapidly progressing despite the challenges faced by the global research community. After searching our matchmaking platform to find the university-developed innovations viewed most by our industry R&D community this year, we’ve profiled the top twenty (plus one honourable mention) to provide an indication of the academic breakthroughs that are set to have the biggest impact in their corresponding industry sectors in 2021.

Each of the top innovations for 2021 featured in this article has been published on IN-PART by a university with the aim of finding industry teams to collaborate with on further development, commercialisation and deployment.

A full non-confidential summary of each project can be viewed on IN-PART through the links below. Access is free for companies through a quick and easy registration and there are no downstream fees associated with using the platform.

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COVID-19 innovations and interventions

Pre-symptomatic detection

Early diagnosis of COVID-19 will be essential in 2021 to help us all return to something that resembles normal. Working towards this aim, scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a technology that promises to detect COVID-19 in a patient’s saliva by detecting specific biomarkers which appear during the incubation period before the patient becomes symptomatic or contagious. 

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Preventing surface transmission

High-use surfaces such as door handles are a key area of concern in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in public spaces. A team of scientists at the University of Minnesota are developing coatings with potent antiviral activity that disables the SARS-CoV-2 virus on contact, preventing its transmission through shared surfaces.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Suppressing cytokine storms in COVID-19 and other inflammatory diseases

Researchers at the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust have developed a new biomolecule that suppresses the inflammatory immune reaction and cytokine storms that are responsible for the most destructive COVID-19 symptoms, providing a possible treatment for severe cases, as well as for many other inflammation-mediated diseases and conditions such as sepsis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and IBD.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Using CRISPR for ultrasensitive point-of-care SARS-CoV-2 detection

Researchers at the University of Connecticut have joined the global effort against the COVID-19 pandemic by employing cutting-edge CRISPR technology for ultrasensitive, point-of-care detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Monoclonal antibodies for highly specific SARS-CoV-2 detection

A team working in the Mount Sinai Health System have developed two bespoke monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) that can be used for the diagnosis and detection of SARS-CoV-2 virus by binding specifically to the spike protein and nucleocapsid protein (each mAb being specific to each protein). These have been received by industry as a much-welcomed ally in the fight against this world-altering coronavirus.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Solutions for climate change and a sustainable future

Cradle-to-cradle plastics

Coming full circle on the life cycle of plastics,  Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers have created a new class of recyclable polymer with properties matching current standards that can be easily de-polymerized and reused as a means to a more economic and green plastic economy.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Generating hydrogen from water without precious metals

Improving the process of splitting water (H₂0) to extract hydrogen (H₂)is a crucial part of the global drive to utilise hydrogen as a source of clean energy, which is currently limited (amongst a few other things) by the fact that the electrocatalysts that drive the process are expensive and rare platinum metals. With a view to solving this issue, researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University have developed alloy nanoparticles made of abundantly-available metals that outperform the current standard for hydrogen electrocatalysts at lower costs.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Turning greenhouse gases into useful products at room temperature

With anthropogenic greenhouse gases still increasing, a low-energy, non-thermal plasma reactor developed by researchers at the University of Liverpool now provides a novel one-step process to convert carbon dioxide and methane (which is 84 times more potent than CO2!) into useful fuels and chemicals at atmospheric pressures and temperatures, aiding in the ongoing fight against climate change.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Making desalination more accessible

To address the global need for more stable and widespread access to clean water for drinking and agriculture, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed an approach to desalination that uses a new type of electrode to remove salt from seawater that can be recharged like a battery as a cheaper and more energy-efficient alternative to reverse osmosis.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Maintaining crop yields as the climate heats up

A research team from Macquarie University in Sydney have identified and isolated a novel variant of Rubisco activase (an enzyme that controls photosynthetic activity) in wild Australian rice which is stable at temperatures up to 45°C. By incorporating this form of Rubisco activase into other crops, either through conventional breeding or recombinant insertion, the researchers’ ambitions are to maintain yields as the climate heats up and to expand the regions into which heat-sensitive crops can be grown.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Life sciences, biotech and healthcare

Picking the winners in drug discovery

Innovative scientists at the University of Exeter have developed a multidimensional genetic screening platform that makes it possible to identify effective and reliable targets for new drug compounds much earlier on in the discovery pipeline. This technology has the potential to alleviate  some of the huge costs associated with drug-candidate failure for pharmaceutical companies and has already been successfully applied to repurpose three drugs for three different diseases.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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A cancer therapy for multiple tumour types

Developing a treatment that can address multiple types of cancer is key to combating this challenging disease area. Researchers at Vanderbilt University have discovered new immunotherapy targets that have allowed them to develop novel antibodies which can overcome tumour-resistance developed against current cancer immunotherapies.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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An antibiotic alternative capable of treating resistant bacterial infections

In the fight against antimicrobial resistance, a team of scientists at Durham University have improved the current standard alternative to antibiotics (peptide-based therapeutic agents, also known as peptoids), by altering their chemical structure to enhance their delivery into cells and the effectiveness of their action against bacterial infections.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Versatile drug delivery that enhances pharmacokinetic activity

Delivering peptides or drug-based agents to the correct location in the body is a major challenge in successfully treating a variety of diseases. With this aim, researchers at University of Mississippi Medical Center have developed a highly versatile, non-toxic delivery system with a unique, modifiable structure that can meet the target requirements of a range of disease treatments, while also enhancing the pharmacokinetic properties of the attached drug.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Modelling the brain to find treatments for neurodegenerative disease

There’s a team of scientists at the University of Oklahoma who are dedicated to the development of new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzhiemer’s and Parkinson’s. To help achieve this goal, they’ve figured out a way to grow complex human neuron-astrocyte cocultures with bidirectional differentiation, much faster than current standards and without the need for differentiation inducer in the culture medium, that opens up new opportunities for treatment testing and personalised stem cell therapies. 

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Engineering and physical sciences

Strengthening materials with light

Many technologies in fields such as dentistry, engineering and nanolithography require polymers that change their physical properties, and compared with traditional thermal and solvent-based polymerization, light-induced photopolymerization involves less energy consumption and reduced waste. Building on this, researchers at the University at Albany have developed a stable, tailorable, photosensitive polymer that, when irradiated, doubles its hardness, offering significant advances for durable coatings and high-performance fibres.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Biomimetic super-repellant adhesives

‘Fibrillar’ dry adhesives draw inspiration from nature with slender fibres similar to those found in nearly all living organisms, and while scientists have found many applications for them, including robotics, wearable electronics, and medical devices, they are weakened by oils which are ubiquitous in these systems To combat this, a team at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart have developed a breakthrough fibrillar adhesive that displays super-repellency towards all liquids, including oils, preventing decreases in performance compromise at the contact interface.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Protecting infrastructure, food, plants and people from biocorrosion and infection

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have found an answer to the huge economic and social challenge of corrosive, antimicrobial-resistant biofilms by engineering specialized enzymes to strategically disrupt bacterial communication, providing a long-lasting, preventative solution to biocorrosion and contamination in a variety of environments such as construction, transport, healthcare settings and food production.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

Taking inspiration from human vision for high-quality infrared imaging

Developing high-quality images is an essential part of our digital world, and for industries like medical imaging, security and environmental monitoring, infrared/thermal imaging is key for monitoring properties we can’t see with visible light. To improve the quality of infrared images, researchers at the City University of New York have adapted characteristics of human vision to reduce image noise, improve contrast, and preserve brightness.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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A lithium-free, hybrid power source for electric vehicles

The electrification of the transport sector is imperative for combating the global climate crisis, and this supercapacitor-battery hybrid from researchers at Queen’s University could put us on the road to success with safer, lithium-free, rapid and longer-lasting charges, and a low environmental impact.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Honourable mention

A record-shattering magnetic moment

Coming in just outside the top 21 most, our team nominated this project as a top contender based on the nature of the discovery and the communication of a complex phenomenon…

A team of researchers collaborating between Montana State University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have delivered a new reigning champion for the magnetic moment of a metal alloy. Breaking the previous record of 2.45 μB/atom (and the Slater-Pauling limit on magnetic density) the Montana-Berkley collaborators altered the atomic packing structure of their new FeCoMn alloy thin film using molecular beam epitaxy to generate a magnetic moment of 3.25 μB/atom, which is set to unlock the promise of many spintronics technologies.

Read the full project summary to learn more about this top innovations for 2021 feature.

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Discover more top innovations from academia:


Technologies written by Alex Stockham (10, 13, 21), Ruth Kirk (7, 8, 18, 19), Joseph Ferner (16, 17, 20), Sharon Gill (9), Sarah Firth (6), Mireia Baizan-Urgell (12, 14, 15), Belinda Wistow (4, 5, 11) and Steph Faulkner (1, 2, 3).

Edited by Alex Stockham and Ruth Kirk. Formatting by Ruth Kirk.

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2021: ‘Top 21 Innovations for 2021’


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