The Rice Business Plan Competition took place in Houston earlier this month. As the world's largest contest of its kind, it featured 42 teams and showcased the vision of our country's top entrepreneurs. The three-day event awarded more than $2 million in prize money and attracted investments from several of America's largest venture capital funds.
The winning company was MIT's Infinite Cooling, whose proprietary metallic web runs an electric current to recycle evaporative losses from nuclear power plant cooling towers. The solution will save each power plant nearly $1 million annually by reducing water use by 20%, while also helping to solve the world's growing water shortage.
The technologies featured at the event were incredible. And an aura of future success emanated from the university throughout the competition.
Nonaccredited individual investors don't have a way to directly invest in these privately held companies. But the impact they will have on their industries is undeniable.
Investors in publicly traded companies need to be aware of key themes evident in this new wave of innovative entrepreneurs.
1. They're building in the cloud
If there's one trend that stood out, it's that new businesses are building their products in the cloud.
For example, OZE is creating a cloud-based data analytics platform to help small businesses in Africa, which it's building on Amazon Web Services' infrastructure. And OptiML is creating a machine learning (ML) platform to diagnose eye diseases. It's using NVIDIA's (NASDAQ:NVDA) graphics processing units to recognize pictures of eye conditions, and training its neural network on Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google Cloud platform.
Getting the IT infrastructure up and running for your start-up isn't as hard as it used to be. Cloud vendors like AWS, Alphabet, and Salesforce now offer as much storage and processing as you need, while also providing a plethora of software applications to optimize your business.
The key takeaway: With cloud-based tools now available, entrepreneurs can focus less on fundraising to build out expensive infrastructure, and can focus more on generating useful data.
2. The era of the personal care physician
There's a change underway in our healthcare system.
Primary care physicians used to function largely as referrals, getting an early read on patients and then sending them to specialists to better diagnose and treat conditions. Pockets of knowledge independently grew within the healthcare system: "ologies" with a specific focus -- such as neurology, cardiology, or hematology.
But the parts of our bodies don't operate independently. Everything is interconnected, so tracking conditions and correlating their effects are important to proactively stay healthy.
In the new era of healthcare, personal care physicians will play a significantly larger role in collecting patient data. They'll have an arsenal of new tools at their disposal. Wearable devices with advanced sensors can take biometric readings and send pictures and data to the cloud. They can then use machine learning (ML) to immediately diagnose conditions. Many ML algorithms are already operating above 90% accuracy, which provides a more effective diagnosis than many specialists can.
These new tools won't replace medical specialists. But they will allow them to focus less on diagnosis and more on treating serious conditions, which will have already been identified by the personal care physician.
This could be a big win for the electronic health records (EHR) providers, such as athenahealth (NASDAQ:ATHN) and Cerner (NASDAQ:CERN). Detailed, interoperable EHRs that can be shared across hospitals will be crucial for maintaining accurate patient records and developing improved treatment routines. That could, in turn, provide better patient outcomes.
The key takeaway: Broad-based data analysis is increasingly diagnosing health conditions. Watch for your doctor to utilize a few new toys at your next checkup.
3. Innovation favors the incumbents
Ironically, the biggest beneficiaries of this new wave of innovation could be the most established players.
The vast majority of the teams at the competition said their exit strategy was an acquisition. That means that after years of hard work to establish, scale, and manage their businesses, they plan to cash out by selling to the 800-pound industry incumbents.
It's hard to blame them. Established companies already have strong relationships with their industry's largest customers. Displacing those relationships would take a lot of time, cost, and effort.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Many entrepreneurs would be happy to sell their businesses -- for the right price -- directly to the incumbents.
This gives forward-looking acquisitive firms, such as Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), SoftBank (NASDAQOTH:SFTBY), or Alphabet, a huge opportunity. They can allow entrepreneurs to pave the innovative path, then invest when they see something they like that would complement their own business. Many of these companies are already actively involved in supporting entrepreneurship, by sponsoring innovation centers and accelerators or by establishing their own venture capital arms.
The key takeaway: Look for companies with a track record of successfully acquiring and incorporating new technologies and businesses.
Look for tomorrow's great entrepreneurs today
With a ton of neat new ideas in the world, growth-style investors have quite a bit to look forward to. The rise of cloud computing is accelerating the pace of innovation, which will have a huge impact on healthcare and acquisitive companies.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Simon Erickson owns shares of Athenahealth, Cerner, and Nvidia. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Athenahealth, Johnson & Johnson, and Nvidia. The Motley Fool has the following options: short May 2018 $140 calls on Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool recommends Cerner. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.