Thematic investing: edutainment and robotics are future megatrends

Our resources are limited. They should be used in a “clever, smart, efficient, and profitable” way, says Bertrand Piccard. Other scientists and pioneering entrepreneurs who appeared at this year’s Thematic Flagship ETH Conference agree and are also pursuing this goal.

December 23, 2022

Thematic investing is about new investment opportunities for the future

Photo: Johanne Nyborg, An AR model of a beating heart.

Key takeaways

  • Most of the big investment themes of the future are already out there and known. But it is often difficult to classify and prioritize them.
  • Identifying suitable investment opportunities requires a great deal of understanding and know-how. A trusting cooperation between scientists and asset managers is putting this goal forward.
  • Bertrand Piccard is calling for disruption and reinventing the future. He himself has demonstrated how to do this.
  • The edutainment company Ludenso uses augmented reality for a more efficient learning experience. Children’s creativity is preserved and encouraged.
  • ETH professor Robert Katzschmann expects future robots to have muscle, not motors. The Soft Robotic Fish (SoFi) is a demonstrator that uses muscles to explore the ocean.

Thematic investing offers innovative investment opportunities coming directly from science

Homeschooling was a topic at the last ETH conference in November 2018. At the time, everybody thought it would take 20 years for this form of teaching to really kick off. Six months later, COVID-19 came into our lives and accelerated that trend. Homeschooling was established at last. Filippo Rima, Head of Investment and Regional Head of AM Switzerland, Credit Suisse Asset Management, sees this development as a motivation for future trends. The ability to recognize global trends and innovative solutions at an early stage and to integrate them into the investment strategy is becoming increasingly important.

Today, teaching systems will change significantly through edutainment. Edutainment is likely to become more important along with other “conviction topics” such as security, robotics, digital healthcare, environmental impacts, and infrastructure (see the Ludenso case study).

The question is: How do you identify investment themes and investment opportunities within that space? For the Thematic Investment team at Credit Suisse Asset Management, a close collaboration between its own experts and entrepreneurs is crucial. At the same time, the asset managers are reaching out to scientists. To achieve this, the bank formed a partnership with ETH Zurich in 2018. Among other things, it includes financial support for a professorship in robotics.

“The cooperation between ETH and Credit Suisse dates back to the time when the two institutions were founded,” says Prof. Dr. Joël Mesot, President of ETH Zurich. More than 160 years ago, ETH and the “Schweizerische Kreditanstalt”, as today’s Credit Suisse was called back then, collaborated to build the Gotthard Road Tunnel. Today, partnerships are needed to advance technological developments such as robotics. The task is to maintain Switzerland’s top position in terms of innovative ability.

Bertrand Piccard sees major investment opportunities in energy crisis and infrastructure

The place at the top is highly competitive and requires the ability to think and act disruptively, says Bertrand Piccard in his keynote speech. If there’s one thing the psychiatrist, explorer, and adventurer can’t stand, it’s these four words: “It is not possible.” Still, he heard this sentence over and over when he was looking for solutions to the great challenges facing the world. According to Piccard, he was usually given the same explanation as to why it is not possible: “Because it has never been done before.”

The 64-year-old Swiss, however, never concurred. If he had, he would not have been able to become the first person to circle the earth nonstop in a balloon. Or to travel around the world in a purely solar-powered airplane. “The aim of Solar Impulse was not to transport passengers,” Piccard says. Rather, the goal was to prove that renewable energies and clean technologies can achieve impossible goals.

Bertrand Piccard set the goal of identifying more than 1,000 solutions that can protect the environment in an economically profitable way. “The path needs to break up existing rules,” as Piccard puts it. “We have to invent the future we want.”

For Piccard and his colleagues, the energy crisis and the modernization of poor infrastructure are “the greatest market opportunities of the century.” Society, however, is still dealing with global resources as if they were infinitely available. Instead, we should use them “cleverly, smartly, efficiently, and profitably,” says Piccard.

The minimum target of 1,000 profitable technology solutions to reduce CO2 emissions, energy and water consumption, and to promote energy efficiency and the circular economy has already been reached and widely exceeded. The call for disruptive thinking and action worked.

Thematic investing: augmented reality offers many investment opportunities

Children who start school today each have to attend around 13,000 school hours in total. Most of the time, they are all being taught the same subject matter and are asked to come up with the same answers. “That doesn’t necessarily encourage creativity,” says Eirik Wahlstrom, co-founder of the Norwegian company Ludenso. A lot of potential is wasted, he says. According to a NASA study, 98% of four- to five-year-olds achieve genius level in creativity tests. The corresponding proportion among adults is just 2%.

How can the enormous creative potential of small children be used to teach them school knowledge more effectively and sustainably? Ludenso relies on technologies that facilitate and simplify learning. Applications based on augmented reality (AR) play an important role in this.

For example, physical books can be equipped with a digital layer. It enhances the analogue content with visualized and often animated information. The beating heart on the mobile phone screen represents this technology. It motivates children to find out more about it. 

Biomimetic robotics is a promising future trend

Learning from nature has always been a path that researchers are keen to follow. Prof. Dr. Robert Katzschmann took that path, too, and reached impressive results. He is the founder and head of the Soft Robotics Lab at ETH Zurich. Using the example of a hydraulic soft-bodied robotic fish (called SoFi), he shows how an artificial animal can swim in three dimensions. Locomotion is biomimetic. New generations of SoFi more closely imitate biology and do not require the support of rotating motors anymore. The muscles alone are responsible for propulsion. To achieve this, Katzschmann and his team created systems powered by artificial muscles that contract and expand by moving electrical charges within those muscles.

The interesting thing about this work is that muscles, which are directly grown from biological cells, can also be used in future robots. “In five to ten years, we will have more robots that use actual muscles instead of motors,” Katzschmann predicts.

What investment opportunities are there in robotics?

Mechanics, artificial intelligence, and extensive connectivity work together to take robotics to the next level. Their aim is to increase productivity in conventional industries and to revolutionize medicine and agriculture as well as domestic life, transportation, and more. Robots are penetrating every aspect of modern life. And this is just the beginning. Political developments concerning robotics, automation, and AI may have a significant adverse impact on the Robotics theme.

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Source: Credit Suisse, Thematic Flagship ETH Conference 2022, unless otherwise specified.

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