Fast Company

Five Big Business Opportunities for the Next Decade

For young people graduating from college with mountains of debt, and for workers of any age who have been jobless for long periods of time in the current economy, the picture is ominous: if we are in a recovery at all, it's a jobless one, and more than likely we aren't in a recovery except in a technical sense. Whatever the economists say, Americans and Europeans are feeling the earth move in unpleasant ways beneath them.

This is the first summer I've spent in Silicon Valley in almost a decade where the Valley didn't seem like a hotbed of innovation. Things are happening here, but not the kinds of things that attract big venture capital investment. In fact, venture capital as an industry is struggling. Cash is sitting on the sidelines looking for places to invest. And sidelined people are looking for opportunities to apply their talents.

Time to get off your butts everybody. Obama didn't do it with the stimulus, but that doesn't mean it doesn't need to be done. Here are my votes for the biggest business opportunities of the next decade:

1) The smart grid. We leak something like 30% of the electricity we produce. So we can sit around arguing about whether it should come from coal, solar, or nuclear, and we still haven't solved a couple of big problems: we must get the energy from here to there more efficiently, and we must re-build our outdated power system so it can't be taken down by the next heat wave. Somebody start a company to optimize electricity, and somebody start one to study what needs to be re-built. Power generation is already being worked on.

2) Water. Our water and wastewater systems are also old. Isn't there an easier way to transport water than the ways we are using? The Central Arizona Project transports water to the entire southwest from the Colorado River. How much of that evaporates. Are there better ways to transfer and purify water? To get it into the home? To enable people to conserve?

3) Streets and roads. Our highway systems are falling apart. Are there new materials with which to re-build it? Materials that won't wear out every summer, or get potholes every winter? Or use toxic concrete? Can we use nano materials on roads? Can we make them smart so they will tell us when they need repair?

4) High speed travel infrastructure. Both air and rail need serious re-thinking. Someone with a good idea here will attract all the venture capital she needs. Trillions of dollars are sitting there, waiting for the next good idea.

5) Cleaning up the oceans. I had a conversation with a friend who estimated that 20% of our GDP will be affected by the oil spill and the resulting dead zones in the oceans around North America:

"Nutrient pollution has emerged as the most widespread....effect of pollution on [ocean] living resources and biodiversity," states NCCOS in their article. NCCOS is a branch of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) headquartered in Washington, D.C.
NCCOS states that excessive ocean nutrients cause an "explosive growth" of microscopic algae plants. The algae blocks sunlight "needed for underwater grasses to grow." Ocean plants and animals cannot live without sufficient oxygen. Not enough oxygen causes "hypoxic conditions" commonly referred to as "dead zones."

These dead zones were occurring BEFORE the oil spill:

The Gulf of Mexico is a major source area for the seafood industry. The Gulf supplies 72% of U.S. harvested shrimp, 66% of harvested oysters, and 16% of commercial fish (Potash and Phosphate Institutes of the U.S. and Canada, 1999). Consequently, if the hypoxic zone continues or worsens, fishermen and coastal state economies will be greatly impacted.

So there's an even bigger job to do now, to restore some of these regions to life.

These aren't just jobs for environmentalists. They are the business opportunities of the future. So get going: I want to help.

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