If there’s one thing startup founders can take from 2020, it’s that the future is unpredictable in many ways. With the reminder that unexpected factors can affect plans at any time, a key takeaway is to stay agile and build an organisation that can respond to almost any circumstances.

There are some foundational elements and trends startups can bank on seeing as we continue into 2021 and beyond. Below I will discuss why five major factors including AI, cyber security and cloud-first, will be and should be, at the forefront of businesses in 2021 and share my thoughts with entrepreneurs on how to best address these trends to stay at the forefront of any unexpected changes. Successful founders should keep these in mind to stay ahead of the game.

Explainable AI will gain prominence

As companies are increasingly leveraging ML models to make mission-critical decisions, enterprises will be looking for solutions that can help unpack black-box ML models. Users need to have visibility into concept drift and bias detection to ensure the reliability and fairness of ML solutions. The stakes are high: irresponsible AI can lead to everything from solving a business problem incorrectly to the erosion of public trust and even ethical issues around race, gender, or other forms of bias that could have real impacts on peoples’ lives. With such issues, companies also run the risk of non-compliance with regulators.

I have no doubt explainable AI will continue to be rapidly adopted by startups and innovative companies across all industries, not just in 2021 but beyond. Enterprises like Seldon Alibi which enables model inspection and interpretation to ensure fairness and eliminate bias, are increasingly looking for explainable AI solutions. The concept will be fundamental and even mandatory across many organisations before they can roll out ML models at scale.

Cloud-first should, and will, come first

As COVID-19 began impacting workplaces globally, it quickly became apparent the world would forgo conventional ways of working as millions shifted to remote working.

While the change was necessary, the sudden switch resulted in companies acceleration to cloud adoption. This also saw an increase in a cloud-first approach at the core of new businesses as entrepreneurs globally recognised how businesses could operate even after the pandemic, and preempted the move to a cloud-first business model.

Cloud-first is not a novel concept and had already held importance before COVID-19, but the acceleration it triggered essentially means companies that are not cloud-first will be obsolete in the long run. Incumbent businesses across all verticals are exposed to threats by the cloud-first and cloud-native startups that are leveraging the speed, flexibility and cost-effectiveness of the cloud to disrupt traditional ways of conducting business.

Cyber security must be a focus for every enterprise – big or small

If 2018 and 2019 were the years of digital transformation, 2020 and 2021 are shaping up to be the years of cybersecurity. Increased digitisation as a result of remote working during the pandemic, comes with increased risk. The ability to effectively secure digital assets and provide products and services to customers in a safe and secure manner are central for survival in the Covid era.

According to PwC, 55% of business and technology executives are increasing their cyber-budgets for 2021 and 50% say that cyber and privacy will be baked into every decision or plan. With this in mind, I have no doubt that cybersecurity startups will see increased funding and will be at front and center since CEOs of every enterprise now have cybersecurity at the top of their agenda.

Open source will continue to gain importance

The shift left trend has been gaining a lot of prominence in the recent years with major enterprises such as Microsoft, IBM and Google playing an active role in contributing to and leveraging open source projects. Open source is increasingly becoming popular among developers as it helps build communities that understand and solve a common problem. Open source, by definition not only is free but is also typically vetted by a large community of earlier users and developers.

In 2021 and going forward, I expect more buying decisions in IT to be increasingly influenced by developers who prefer to test before they buy. Companies such as Seldon and Snyk (now valued at over $1B) are examples of how open-source companies will continue to dominate the enterprise software category. We’ll see more VC dollars backing open-source companies in 2021.

The digital health revolution will accelerate

While it is less of a tip and more a major theme, startup founders should recognise the growing opportunities associated with digital health. The multi-trillion-dollar global industry is seeing a rapid transformation, driven by initiatives partially spurred on by COVID-19. The pandemic created the perfect storm for startups with innovative solutions to disrupt the slow and heavily regulated healthcare industry. We’ll see more of everything from remote patient monitoring to genomics and drug discovery.

We’ll continue to witness the convergence of tech in the healthcare sector to enable innovative solutions to pain points across the value chain. I also anticipate an increased adoption of AI in the healthcare sector as healthcare professionals, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance providers are looking for better ways to serve the patients leveraging the massive amounts of data available.

This sector presents a massive opportunity to entrepreneurs and investors alike – we will see many established companies finding themselves in fierce competitions with much smaller startups. This will also drive a massive M&A wave in the next 2-3 years as many of these multi-billion dollar corporations try to gobble up as many startups as they can to defend their market position.

For startups looking to break into any industry, I encourage each to concern themselves with the importance of a cloud-first approach and take advantage of open source software and increasingly easily explainable AI the world has to offer. Finally, while COVID-19 has created a pathway for rapid acceleration across many industries, entrepreneurs in digital health will continue to cause a revolution and I say to all, keep watching this space!

Article by Vin Lingathoti, Partner at CIC