2018 was a turbulent tech year. Blockchain exploded and crashed, mobility startups popped up on our streets, and we suffered one privacy scandal after another. So in this blog we look back at the past year, and give you our 5 most important tech and entrepreneurial trends of 2018.
Blockchain and crypto currencies
Early 2018 was all about blockchain and crypto currencies. Experts ambitiously predicted that crypto currencies like bitcoin would transform the existing banking system and that the technology behind bitcoin, blockchain, would replace all kinds of intermediaries.
That hype also reached Belgium. A wave of new start-ups was created and even governments and large companies, from the Flemish Government to the Port of Antwerp, are experimenting with the technology.
Since then, the blockchain hype died down. Where one bitcoin was still worth $17,000 in January 2018, by December 2018 the value dropped below $4,000. In addition, many blockchain experiments turned out to be more complex than initially thought, and we are still mainly in the phase of pilot projects and experiments.
This shows how new technologies are vulnerable to hypes, and that a critical eye is often useful. But that doesn’t mean we should write off blockchain completely. Below the surface, the technology can now mature.
The research firm Gartner, for example, put blockchain in the middle of the ‘trough of disillusionment’ in its 2018 hype cycle. According to them, every technology goes through what they call a hype cycle. After every hype, a technology enters a phase where it is no longer popular with the general public, but progress continues. After this period, we have a better understanding of what a technology offers, and how we can deal with it more realistically (also called the ‘plateau of productivity’). Whether blockchain survives this far we will probably find out in 2019.
In addition, 2018 was the year of mobility start-ups. We have seen a worldwide wave of new concepts in mobility, and in Belgium too, more innovation is appearing on our streets.
In January 2018, So Poppy was founded in Antwerp, a free-floating car-sharing service from the ex-founders of Flavr. The ex-founders of Take Eat Easy dove back into the e-bike market and founded Cowboy. With their ‘iPhone of e-bikes’, they raised over 10 million euros in capital in 2018. Birdhouse alumni Cycle Valley has been organizing sustainable cycling solutions for businesses and cities for several years.
But international companies are also finding their way to the Belgian market. Free-floating electric scooters from companies such as Bird are increasingly appearing on Belgian streets. And there are even start-ups that unite all these innovations. Finland’s Whim launched in Antwerp in 2018 with their ‘Netflix of mobility’. You pay them a subscription fee and can use various means of transport such as shared bicycles and shared cars.
Of course, this also attracted criticism. San Francisco and a whole host of American cities are considering banning electric scooters such as those made by Bird, and free-floating bicycles have run into trouble in Brussels because of the inconvenience they cause. Nevertheless, mobility startups were clearly on the rise in 2018. Something that will hopefully continue in 2019.
Artificial intelligence or AI became more mainstream than ever in 2018. There was a lot of attention for the complex theme. In Belgium, a vibrant ecosystem of AI start-ups has emerged, and more and more companies are incorporating it into their daily operations.
Self-driving cars is the AI innovation that probably stood out the most in 2018. That technology relies heavily on artificial intelligence, and companies like Google and Uber made big leaps forward in 2018. But that also had a dark side. 2018 brought the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car. In March 2018, a pedestrian died like this after a collision with an Uber self-driving car. In addition, some accidents with Tesla‘s autopilot followed.
AI also raises the fear of job loss. Because as computers get smarter they might take over human jobs. Nevertheless, experts continue to disagree on the ultimate impact of AI (and robotization) on unemployment. Whether intelligent computers will replace us in the future remains uncertain.
What we do know is that a lot of Belgian start-ups are already using AI. Birdhouse start-up TechWolf, for example, uses it to improve jobsites such as those of the VDAB. And companies like Sentiance, Robovision and Faktion are making sectors like agriculture, Internet of Things and chatbots more efficient thanks to artificial intelligence. It’s not all doom and gloom in AI land.
Scandals like these, and growing concerns about online privacy breaches, made it logical that 2018 also became the year of the GDPR. The European Union’s strict new data privacy law obviously caused a lot of headaches for companies (just think of the bombardment of e-mails you received in the spring), but it also ensured better data protection for European citizens.
2019 will expect more ethics from internet companies working with data. Consumers have become suspicious of their privacy, and start-ups will have to follow suit.
Finally, 2018 was the year where women entrepreneurs increasingly claimed their place, including in the technology world. Tech, of course, is still heavily male-dominated. Techcrunch found, for example, that in 2017 17% of US startups had a female founder, and TheNextWeb calculated that for the same year in Europe 15% of founders were women.
But on the other hand, there are also bright spots. Conny Vandendriessche, founder of Accent Jobs, came up with a women’s investment fund, WeAreJane, in 2018, and we’re seeing more and more strong female entrepreneurs (see our blog post about the one at Birdhouse here). In addition, we found that start-ups with female founders often do better than start-ups with only male founders.
More diversity in start-up country ensures better results. So if there’s one trend we need to continue in 2019 it might be the latter.